Sugar and spice, but PCBs aren’t so nice

Being a female scientist and geek, sometimes I’ve wished there were a few more women in my circle. If the trend in Arctic birthrates is a sign, this might be true soon, but for a very, very wrong reason. As published in the Guardian, Inuit women with high levels of PCBs, DDT, and other nasty chemicals in their bodies are giving birth to twice as many girls as boys. These chemicals are known to be toxic, but to my knowledge this is the first time that a synthetic chemical has actually changed the sex of babies on a large scale.

This is a classic case of the people least to blame being harmed the most. The Inuit don’t use the products that were made with PCBs or eat the crops that were dusted with DDT (both products are now banned in the US), but they do eat top predators like seals and whales. Since the chemicals are fat-soluble, they get stuck in the body and accumulate up the food chain – pollution gets into plankton into fish into seals or whales, and then into people.

As an adult, I don’t worry about this too much for myself – I’ve only got so much worry to go around – but for babies and kids, it’s scary scary stuff. Americans aren’t likely to be carrying the huge toxic loads like the Inuit anytime soon, but I think we’re going to get more familiar with endocrine disruptors than we want to be. The recent concerns about bisphenol-a (found in baby bottles and Nalgenes) is just one example.

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