Health Problems

Recent Update (added October 25, 2013): A University of Michigan School of Public Health study, completed in June 2013, looked at 42 mother-child pairs in the Aamjiwnaang region, testing for toxic chemicals emitted by the nearby industrial facilities of Chemical Valley. A Saria Observer newspaper article describes the study and its findings: http://www.theobserver.ca/2013/07/11/elevated-levels-among-aamjiwnaang-moms-and-kids . The complete research report made available to the public can be found here: http://sitemaker.umich.edu/aamjiwnaang/files/report-aamjiwnaang_biomonitoring_2013-v4-final.pdf .

Breanne, Mariah, and Kaylie play basketball behind the Aamjiwnaang band office, which is across the road from NOVA Chemicals. (Craig Glover)

There have been numerous developments of health-related problems at Aamjiwnaang that are most likely related to pollution from the surrounding petrochemical industry: the most well known of these is the uneven birth rate of boys to girls. Normally, the ratio is just slightly above 50/50 for the two sexes, with boys being born at a slightly higher rate than girls. At Aamjiwnaang, however, for a 10-year period from 1994 to 2003, the sex ratio steadily declined, eventually reaching a point where only one boy was being born for every two girls. Put differently, only one third of live births during this period were male. This problem was first discovered in the 1990’s when there were three softball teams for the girls on the reserve and only one team for the boys.

The petrochemical industry is believed to be responsible for this because there have been chemicals found at Aamjiwnaang that are known endocrine disruptors, meaning that they interfere with hormonal functions such as those governing the sex differentiation in fetuses.  For example, pthalates (added to plastics to increase flexibility) have been scientifically linked to smaller sexual organs in males if the mother is exposed during pregnancy. Another chemical that also has hormone-altering properties and is found in the area is hexachlorobenzine (HCB). Constanze Mackenzie (University of Ottawa) and colleagues hypothesize that, “while there are several potential factors that could be contributing to the observed decrease in sex ratio…, the close proximity of this community to a large aggregation of industries and potential exposure to compounds that may influence sex ratios warrants further assessment” (Mackenzie et al 2005: 1295). Rather than investigating these chemicals as possible causal factors, though, industry representatives tend to point their fingers at such “life style” issues as alcohol consumption, diet, and smoking as likely causes of the skewed birth ratio.

Other health issues plague Aamjiwnaang as well, such as cancer and asthma. There have been many chemicals found in soil, water, and air samples in the area that are proven or suggested carcinogens. The primary cancer-causing chemical here is benzene. Benzene is an important component in the production of gasoline and serves as an intermediate to create stronger chemicals. Other chemicals found in the area suggested to cause cancer include ethylbenzene and isoprene. Asthma is another problem commonly found at Aamjiwnaang due to the contamination of the air. Based on samples taken from the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), it has been reported that exposure to these chemicals can cause irritation to the eyes, throat, and nose. They can also cause problems with the liver, kidneys, and reproductive systems. In extreme cases, these chemicals can cause neurological damage. Physical symptoms of these chemicals are often reported as fatigue, dizziness, nausea, etc. Eventually exposure can lead to cancer and/or death.

   

References:

  • Aamjiwnaang First Nation Health and Environment Committee. Web. <www.aamjiwnaangenvironment.ca>.
  • The Bucket Brigade. Global Community Monitor. 2006. Web. <www.bucketbrigade.net>
  • Colihan, Mary Ann. “Chemical Valley: Aamjiwnaang First Nation in Sarnia sounds alarm over toxins.” 1 Apr. 2008. <www.cbc.ca/news/background/aboriginals/health.html>
  • Ecojustice. Web. <www.ecojustice.ca>
  • Mackenzie, Lockridge and Keith  “Declining Sex Ratio in a First Nation Community.”  Environmental Health Perspectives, Oct. 2005, pp. 1295-1298. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1281269/
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