Toxic chemicals blamed for the disappearance of Arctic boys

A A A

Twice as many girls as boys are being born in remote communities north of the Arctic Circle. Across much of the northern hemisphere, particularly in the US and Japan, the gender ratio has skewed towards girls for the first time.

Now scientists working with Inuit villages in Arctic Russia and Greenland have found the first direct evidence that this trend is linked to widespread chemical pollutants. Despite the Arctic's pristine environment, the area functions as a pollution sink for much of the industrialised world. Winds and rivers deliver a toxic tide from the northern hemisphere into the polar food chain.

Scientists have traced flame-retardant chemicals used in everything from industrial products to furniture, phones and laptops to the food chain, finding high levels of these pollutants in seabirds, seals and polar bears. The Inuit have traditionally relied on a hunter- gatherer's diet almost exclusively made up of marine animals, making them especially vulnerable to toxic pollutants.

Historically in large populations, it is considered normal for the number of baby boys slightly to outnumber girls in a trend believed to compensate naturally for greater male mortality rates.

But a peer-reviewed US study found an unexpected drop in the proportion of boys born in much of the northern hemisphere. The missing boys would number more than 250,000 in the US and Japan, using the gender ratio at the levels recorded up until 1970.

The researchers suspect-ed that this linked widespread exposure among pregnant women to hormone-mimicking pollutants. But Danish scientists examined 480 families in the Russian Arctic and found high levels of the hormone-mimicking pollutants in the blood of pregnant women, and twice as many girls being born as boys.

They are now studying similar communities in Greenland and Canada and although full results will be published next year, their initial findings exactly match those in Russia.

Lars Otto Riersen, a marine biologist, pollution expert and an executive with the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (Amap), says: "When you see such things happening in the Arctic, it may happen here first, in the same way as climate change did."

Although the nature of the Inuit diet is believed to have triggered the disturbing ratios in the Arctic, a similar pattern may be emerging further south. Until now, the only evidence of the impact of these toxins was circumstantial. The most skewed ratio had been in Canada, where a First Nation community in Sarnia lives amid Ontario's petrochemical industry, and the number of boys born has plunged since the 1990s. The fallout from the toxic cloud in Seveso in Italy in 1976 allowed scientists to monitor dramatic impacts on both the gender ratios and numbers of babies born.

Every year in the industrialised world, household fires cause billions of pounds worth of damage, and chemical flame retardants designed to curb this are big business. They contain a host of chemicals some of which mimic human hormones. These chemicals became notorious in the 1960s and a worldwide ban on one category, PCBs, was introduced after tests showed they had entered the food chain with potentially lethal consequences for humans and animals. But the chemicals industry continues to produce variations of the retardants, which scientists claim are not subject to the long-range testing required.

Dr Jens Hansen, leader of Amap research, said they were finding incredibly high levels of banned PCBs among a cocktail of other hormone-mimicking chemicals in pre-natal mothers. Pregnant mothers, he said were ingesting these hormone-mimicking chemicals in their diet and passing them through the placenta where they influenced the gender of the foetus or killed male foetuses.

Aleqa Hammond, Greenland's Foreign Minister, says: "We heard from scientists four years ago that our heavy metal consumption is dangerous." She adds wryly: "If you ate me, you would die."

Aqqaluk Lynge, head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, said they were trying to raise the alarm internationally but nobody was listening. "People don't want to talk about such a critical question. We are talking about our people's survival which is very alarming."

Greenland, the world's largest island and still a dependency of Denmark, now has the highest proportion of women in the world.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Ashdown Group: Automated Tester / Test Analyst - .Net / SQL - Cheshire

£32000 per annum + pension, healthcare & 23 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A gro...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot