There are fewer male babies being born.
Contrary to cultural assumptions that boys are stronger and sturdier, basic biological weaknesses are built into the male of our species.
These frailties leave them more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers that target their brains or hormones.
Several studies suggest that boys are harmed in some ways by these chemical exposures that girls are not.
First of all, human males are disappearing. Mother Nature has always acknowledged and compensated for the fragility and loss of boys by arranging for more of them: 106 male births to 100 female newborns over the course of human history. (Humans are not unique in this setup: Male piglets, as an example, are conceived in greater proportion to compensate for being more likely than female piglets to die before birth.)
But in recent decades, from the United States to Japan, from Canada to northern Europe, wherever researchers have looked, the rate of male newborns has declined. Examining U. S. records of births for the years between 1970 and 1990, they found 1.7 fewer boys per 1,000 than in decades and centuries past; Japan’s loss in the same decades was 3.7 boys.
Boys are also more than two-thirds more likely than girls to be born prematurely – before the 37th week of pregnancy. And, despite advances in public health, boys in the 1970s faced a 30 percent higher chance of death by their first birthday than girls; in contrast, back in the 1750s, they were 10 per cent more likely than girls to die so early in their lives.
The nine-month transformation from a few cells to an infant is a time of great vulnerability. Many chronic illnesses are seeded in the womb.
Once they make it to childhood, boys face other challenges. They are more prone to a range of neurological disorders. Autism is notoriously higher among boys than girls: now nearly five times more likely, as tallied by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They are more susceptible than girls to damage from very low-level exposure to lead. Yet another problem: Boys also suffer from asthma at higher rates. There’s also a stronger link between air pollution and autism in boys.
Why do boys face such a burden of physical challenges?
The answer is that the male’s problems start in the womb: from his more complicated fetal development, to his genetic makeup, to how his hormones work.
In our species, the female is the default gender, the basic simpler model: Humans start out in the womb with female features (that’s why males have nipples). It takes a greater number of cell divisions to make a male; with each comes the greater risk of an error as well as the greater vulnerability to a hit from pollutants.
Females have a stronger immune system because they are packed with estrogen, a hormone that counteracts the antioxidant process.
If the balance of hormones is out of whack in males, what made that happen? Researchers are coming up with some clues, among them:
- Prenatal exposure to chemicals such as insecticide chlorpyrifos
- Pregnant mothers’ exposure to phthalates – used in making some vinyl products and toys as well as some personal care products
- Exposure to bisphenol A, an estrogenic substance used to make polycarbonate plastics as well as some thermal receipts and the linings of food and beverage cans
Some of these chemicals act like fake estrogens, others like fake testosterone, but both types seem to disrupt normal development. Animal tests show that a dose of these chemicals inflict the most damage when it hits a fetus. And, because of their biological vulnerabilities, it’s boys who may experience the most effects.
While not forgoing the push for fairness and equality, it seems wise to accept the scientific reality of male weaknesses. This likely won’t mean the end of men, but their vulnerability to environmental contaminants and diseases could have serious ramifications for the future of the entire human race unless we find ways to protect them from harm.
Alice Shabecoff is the coauthor with her husband, Philip Shabecoff, of Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, Random House 2008, Chelsea Green, 2010.
Source: Environmental Health News
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