By Martin Mittelstaedt, Globe and Mail
SARNIA -- Over the past five years, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation
on the outskirts of Sarnia has had nearly two girls born for every
boy, an unusual run of female births.
Last year, it was nine boys to 19 girls. The year before it
was 10 boys to 21 girls. And the year before that, only six boys
to 15 girls. In the band's registry, baby girls began dominating
around 1993, but the trend to female births has become most pronounced
in recent years.
After a decade of a girl-baby boom, boys often complain of not
having friends nearby to play with, and it's never a problem to
fill a girls sports team.
But the long string of female births is starting to cause deep
unease. Many women have also reported multiple miscarriages, and
in local elementary schools, a large number of children have been
identified as having developmental delays.
"We're in almost a period of denial right now. This can't
be. There are too many things wrong, it can't be true," Darren
Henry, a band member, says.
His wife, Kim Henry, who works as a native counsellor at one
of the schools, fears that living so close to many chemical plants
is affecting the reserve's children. "Are our kids going
through all of this because of all the chemicals here and the
leaks that are happening?" she asked.
At the reserve, there usually isn't much doubt about what sex
a child will be these days. Lisa Joseph has had four girls and
one boy, all under 10.
"I have the one and only boy in my part of the family,"
Two of her sisters have had six girls between them and a third
sister is now pregnant. "She is probably going to have a
girl," Ms. Joseph says.
In Canada, and in most industrialized countries where sex ratios
have been studied, the percentage of boys born has been in a slight,
long-term decline for reasons that are not entirely clear. This
trend began in Canada around the start of the 1970s.
Some researchers suspect that environmental pollutants, many
of which act like female hormones, could be a factor. Several
chemicals, including dioxin, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls)
and hexachlorobenzene, a chemical used in rubber manufacturing,
have been associated with excess female births.
Samples taken from around a creek that winds through the reserve
have been found to be contaminated with both PCBs and hexachlorobenzene,
among other chemicals.
"There is certainly growing evidence that environmental chemicals,
even at fairly low levels, can alter sex ratios," says Shanna
Swan, a professor in the department of family and community medicine
at the University of Missouri- Columbia, who has conducted research
linking poor sperm quality to pesticide exposure.
Fertility drugs, such as clomiphene citrate, also lead to more
girls being born.
The normal state of affairs in the human sex ratio has been
for a slight surfeit of males, with about 106 born for every 100
females. At the time of conception, the ratio is even more dramatic,
with about 120 males for every 100 females.
That more boys generally are conceived and born is thought to
be the way humans evolved to compensate for the higher fragility
of male fetuses and the higher mortality rates among males once
they are born.
"It's a feedback mechanism that protects against excess
male attrition," says John Jarrell, a gynecologist at the
University of Calgary, who helped compile the study showing the
decline in the ratio of male births in Canada.
At Aamjiwnaang, the expected situation -- slightly more male
births than female -- prevailed among the band's approximately
1,500 members from 1984 to 1993.
It is not clear why the ratio suddenly tipped the other way.
Ada Lockridge, one of the band's councillors, suspects chemical
exposure and says one major incident occurred around the time
of the change. She shows visitors an article from the local paper
about an evacuation that took place at the reserve in December
of 1993, after a fire and chemical release at the nearby Suncor
Sarnia's chemical valley has been built literally to the edge
of the reserve, with a who's who of major companies often just
across the road or around the corner. Besides Suncor Energy Inc.,
the neighbours include Imperial Oil Ltd., Shell Canada Ltd., Dupont
Canada Inc., and Dow Chemical Canada Inc. Residents say they have
watched workers protected by space suits go about their jobs,
while they stand watching from the reserve.
The native community was granted its land at the southern edge
of Sarnia in 1827. Much of the 14-square-kilometre reserve remains
forested and is dotted with suburban-style homes, an incongruous
sight in the middle of a sprawling industrial complex that has
20 per cent of Canada's refineries and produces about 40 per cent
of its petrochemicals.
The reserve is also located just downriver from where the so-called
Sarnia blob of dangerous chemicals was found on the bottom of
the St. Clair River in the 1980s.
Residents complain there is almost always some sort of stink
in the air. Sometimes it's like rotten turnips. Other times it's
like rotting eggs. Each corner of the reserve has a slightly different
Being hemmed in by big chemical complexes means any exposure
to harmful compounds is likely to be far greater than in Sarnia
itself, where most residents live kilometres away from the plants.
There are about 20 chemical plants or refineries in the area
whose emissions are large enough that they must be reported to
Environment Canada's national registry of pollution releases.
Earlier this year, Ontario sent its environmental SWAT team to
Sarnia because of the high number of chemical spills. The St.
Clair River near Sarnia is also one of the sites where federal
environmental scientists have found male wildlife species with
blurred sexual characteristics.
Finding explanations to the puzzling birth trend will require
a major study comparing the reserve to other similar native communities
that don't have such high chemical exposure, according to Dr.
On the ground in the reserve, Mr. Henry, who helped coach teams,
says girl squads were easier to assemble. "I know it was
a lot, lot easier to raise a team of girls to play sports than
it was for boys. It just seemed like there was a whole lot of
Edna Cottrelle, who lives about 10 houses down from the Suncor
plant, says her son Nodin, 11, finds the shortage of boys acute.
"There are no boys his age along the river," she says.
"He's always complaining."