In Aamjiwnaang First Nation, near Sarnia, Ontario, there aren’t enough boys to have a hockey team. And although there are three girls’ baseball teams, there is only one boys’ baseball team. This isn’t for lack of interest in sports, but because the community has seen a drastic decline in the number of boys being born in recent years. By 2003, the ratio of girls to boys being born was 2 to 1, one of the biggest ever reported.
A decline in male births is being seen worldwide. Since 1970, there are 3 million fewer baby boys in industrial nations. If this sounds like a real threat to the survival of our species, that’s because it is. It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to accurately predict what might happen in the future if this pattern continues.
Aamjiwnaang is located in the heart of Ontario’s Chemical Valley, and is surrounded on three sides by chemical and manufacturing facilities. Three of the top 10 air polluters in Ontario are within 25 km of the reserve. Noxious smells are a part of life on the reserve and PCBs are one of the chemicals found in elevated levels in Aamjiwnaang’s soil.
Researchers have identified the high exposure to these chemicals as the likely reason fewer boys are being born in Aamjiwnaang (and elsewhere). Chemical exposure may be causing changes at conception and disrupting the reproductive cycle, which makes it harder for male embryos to survive.
Chemicals such as PCBs that enter your body and interfere with your natural hormones are known as endocrine disruptors, the latest toxins to concern Canadian consumers. Research is implicating these chemicals in reduced fertility rates, increased reproductive cancer risk, the obesity epidemic and genital abnormalities. And from rubber ducks to makeup to canned foods, they can be found virtually everywhere. But how worried should we be?
A significant threat to public health
There is mounting evidence that endocrine disruptors are a real threat. One of the first well-documented cases happened in 1993 when Louis Guillette was doing research on alligators in Lake Apopka, Florida. He and his team discovered startling reproductive abnormalities. The young male alligators had very high estrogen levels, very low testosterone levels, and reduced penis size. This was traced back to a severe pesticide spill in the lake in 1980. The pesticides were DDT and DICOFOL – two known endocrine disruptors. More recently, similar hormonal irregularities have been discovered in male alligators from another Florida lake – Lake Okeechobee – that had no such direct exposure to the pesticides, a sign that the impact of hormone disruptive chemicals may be more widespread.
In 2009, the Endocrine Society, an international scientific group of endocrinologists, issued the first ever statement identifying endocrine-disrupting chemicals as a significant concern to public health. “From chemicals in pesticides, food, plastic bottles and other items that we use every day, the concern is real,” said Robert M. Carey, MD, president of The Endocrine Society. “We present evidence that shows endocrine disruptors have effects on male and female reproduction, breast development and cancer, prostate cancer, neuroendocrinology, thyroid disease, metabolism and obesity, and cardiovascular endocrinology.” Endocrine-disrupting chemicals that were identified by the Endocrine Society include industrial solvents (like PCBs), plastics and plasticizers (like bisphenol A and phthalates), pesticides (like DDT), fungicides and pharmaceuticals.
The guilty parties
One of these chemicals, Bisphenol A (BPA) has been in the spotlight in recent years. BPA is a ubiquitous chemical that makes plastics more pliable. It is found in baby bottles, drinking cups, food storage containers, dental sealants, tableware, cell phones, toys, some medical devices and linings in food cans. Nearly all of us have elevated levels of BPA in our bodies and even very low doses have been linked to health effects such as low sperm counts, prostate and testicular abnormalities, and early onset of puberty.
In 2008, Canada banned the import and sale of baby bottles that contain the substance. And in 2010, Canada became the first country to declare BPA a toxic substance. Some plastics manufacturers have been quick to find replacements and declare their products “BPA-free.” Unfortunately research now suggests that many of the chemical substitutes are no better than BPA and that the BPA-free products still leach estrogen-mimicking chemicals.
Another group of chemicals on the Endocrine Society’s list is phthalates. Phthalates are a class of chemical compounds that soften plastics and hold scents and colours. They are widely used in body care products like shampoo, cosmetics and fragrances. Exposure to phthalates can elevate estrogen in males, and hinder boys’ masculine development. In addition, mothers’ exposure to phthalates in pregnancy has been linked to testicular abnormalities and smaller penises in their sons.
Because of the health risks, products with phthalates have been banned in the European Union since 2006. Unfortunately, the Canadian government has been much slower to act. “I don’t see Canada doing anything to regulate cosmetics,” says Jessica Burman Zinger, owner of Cocoon Apothecary, a chemical-free cosmetics line from Waterloo, Ontario. “It is a self-regulated industry similar to the US. Companies will continue to put toxic chemicals in products as long as we keep buying them.”
As Burman Zinger says, at this point, it’s largely up to us to make educated consumer choices. Here are FIVE THINGS you can do now to reduce your exposure to endocrine disruptors:
1. AVOID PLASTIC food containers (especially those for hot beverages); keep soft plastics (such as toys and cling wraps) out of your household.
2. SHOP ORGANIC – To avoid pesticide exposure, buy your fruits and vegetables at a local health food store. Look for weekly organic food boxes, food buying clubs or community supported agriculture (CSA) programs in your area.
3. SWITCH TO NATURAL body care products – Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database for the details on your options.
4. AVOID CANNED foods /beverages – buy your legumes dried and your beer in bottles to reduce your exposure to BPA.
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