Contaminated Population, Meet Contaminated Science

As a First Nation in Canada struggles amid exposure to endocrine disruptors, researchers battle a lack of information and powerful industrial interests

| December 29, 2005

We're all familiar with the human and ecological tragedy that follows massive industrial accidents -- Chernobyl, the Exxon oil spill in Alaska, and the recent benzene spill into the Songhua River in China all come to mind. Less understood, however, are the effects of a lifetime of low-level exposure to the cocktail of endocrine disruptors -- man-made chemicals that mimic hormones in the body -- that permeates every aspect of modern life. A study prompted by a recent discovery of deep-seated health problems in a First Nation in Canada, published in October in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, may help change that. The study looks at the sex ratio (the proportion of male to female births in a given population) in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation from 1984 through 2003. Located in Canada just north of Michigan, the reserve has been surrounded for the past fifty years by Canada's largest concentration of petrochemical manufacturing plants. The area is known locally as 'Chemical Valley.'

The results of the study are staggering: from 1984 to 1993, the birth ratio on the reserve was average for any population, but starting in 1994, the ratio went into a free fall. The numbers now stand at two boys girls for every one girl boy, a large red flag snapping in the wind. If history is any guide, however, the flag won't be big enough for industry representatives and scientists. As Gay Daly reports in On Earth, well-funded industry representatives are highly resistant to the idea that their actions could have caused health problems. Though the Aamjiwnaang study did not determine a direct causal relationship between pollution and health maladies (how endocrine disruptors actually work is not yet fully understood), it and other studies (see links below) indicate a correlation too strong to be ignored.

Indeed, scientists face an uphill battle when trying to research the detrimental effects wrought by endocrine disruptors, Daly reports. Industry lobbyists stand in the way of meaningful legislation, and industry scientists themselves have conducted many of the studies on endocrine disruptors. Those studies stand at complete odds with those done by scientists not aligned with industry. Nevertheless, as Daly reports, the study of endocrine disruptors is gaining speed, thanks in large part to the work of Theo Colborn. Co-author of Our Stolen Future, a layman's guide to endocrine disruptors, Colborn and her colleagues have amassed a database of articles to make existing research available on a topic that doesn't manage to garner the same headlines as other health threats. As Colborn points out, 'If we can't reproduce, whether we get cancer or not will be a moot point.'

Go there >> Canadian Natives Alarmed By a Gender Ratio Out of Whack

Go there too >>Declining Sex Ratio in a First Nation Community

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