Boy Babies Vanishing Among Inuit; Who's Next?

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The Inuit, the native peoples of the world's Arctic regions in Russia, Canada, Alaska, and Greenland (you may know them by the old name, Eskimo), have a little problem. They're having more girl babies than boy babies. A lot more. In some cases, twice as many. And in at least one area in northern Greenland, they're only having girl babies.

This is sad, but why do we care? We're (most of us) not Inuit living in the far north. But they may simply be the exaggerated end of a trend that is growing in other areas as well.

Here's the problem: advanced modern societies, like the US, Europe, and Japan, as well as the advancing countries worldwide, produce toxic substances like DDT (banned in the US, but still used in emergencies and in some other countries), PCBs, flame-retardants and other chemicals that act as endocrine disrupters. What are those? Why, chemicals that mimic human hormones and are capable of all sorts of scary effects, like triggering changes in the sex of unborn children in the first three weeks of gestation, lowering sperm counts, and generally wreaking havoc with the human body.

Many of these chemical build up at the top of the food chain. The chemicals enter the environment, pervading the very air we breathe and the water all life depends on. Small critters like plankton and krill absorb them, bigger fish eat them, then still bigger fish eat those, then seals eat the fish, then polar bears eat the seals, and finally, the Inuit enjoy a nice, rich polar bear steak. By that time, the endocrine disrupters have become more and more concentrated as they have moved up the food chain. Since the Inuit traditionally live on fish and meat (good salads being hard to come by in the Arctic), they have very high levels of these chemicals, even though there is no industry at all where they live.

For the Inuit, the results are basically a Beach Boys song: two girls for every boy. While that may sound pretty good to the guys in the Arctic, it's a recipe for trouble. And the boys that are born tend to be more premature and less healthy than the girls. (Let's not forget the spot in Greenland where there have been only girls born of late.)

But here's the part you care about: the natural ratio of boys to girls born has been, for thousands of years, slightly more boys than girls. (This is presumably because boys take more risks, and so you need a few extra to make up for the ones who kill themselves doing something stupid.) But a paper published in the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences earlier this year said that in Japan and the US, there were 250,000 boys fewer than would have been expected had the sex ratio existing in 1970 remained unchanged.

The Inuit may be at the head of the trend, because they eat so much meat. But we're right behind them; these chemicals are still being produced and introduced into the environment, and many of them stick around for a very long time. It will be pretty ironic if our most advanced societies die out due to lack of healthy males, and all for plastic bags, spotless fruit, and sofas that won't catch fire easily.

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