Known as fetal solvent syndrome or FSS, the problem was identified in a report on Pauingassi First Nation by Manitoba's Office of the Children's Advocate two years ago.
"In Pauingassi," the report said, "the community is now faced with dealing with a syndrome unknown to mainstream society -- FSS babies."
The report said the incidence of women sniffing solvents while pregnant is the result of "multi-generational addictions" on the reserve.
Children's advocate Billie Schibler said doctors who deal with FSS have reported that babies are sometimes born smelling of solvents.
"They seem to absorb all the fumes," said Schibler, a former social and health worker in Ontario and Manitoba. She said the strongest odour comes from the placenta.
Schibler was critical of the fact that Canada stakes out the moral high ground on social problems in other countries, but seems content to let its own problems fester out of sight and out of mind.
"We've got people going in teams to other countries to address crisis situations and helping children and families re-establish their communities," she said.
"Where's the help we need in our own backyard?"
As children's advocate, Schibler is an independent official of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly who represents the interests of children who need help from provincial agencies.
Several Manitoba chiefs have said they will raise the issue of solvent abuse on reserves with Indian Affairs Minister Andy Scott when they meet with him Friday in Winnipeg, where Prime Minister Paul Martin is holding a cabinet meeting.
Pediatrician Dr. Samuel Jebamani said a newborn would smell of solvents only if the mother had been inhaling near the time of delivery.
The smell would be weak or non-existent if the mother stopped long before delivering, Jebamani said.
Like fetal alcohol syndrome, which affects the babies of mothers who drink during pregnancy, FSS is found in the newborns of women who abused solvents, such as gas, paint thinner, glue and other products that produce a high when inhaled.
Dr. Albert Chudley, a geneticist and pediatrician at Winnipeg's Children Hospital, said research has yet to establish a pattern of symptoms for the children born to solvent-abusing women.
Some of the symptoms, including brain damage, are similar but there are other manifestations, including hearing loss and kidney damage that seem to be unique to FSS, Chudley said.
"There is no doubt that both cause significant neurologic damage and brain dysfunction," Chudley said.
One thing both FAS and FSS share is the tendency to emit the odour of alcohol or solvent in the embryonic sack at birth if the mother consumed either substance leading up to labour, Chudley said.
Schibler said the degree of impairment suffered by FSS children can vary widely, depending on the degree of abuse by the mother and other factors.
A Free Press report on Sunday found that community life in Pauingassi is collapsing under the weight of an epidemic of solvent abuse.
About 20 per cent of the northern reserve's 450 residents, including half the children under 18, are addicted to solvents, the report said.
Boredom, unemployment, family breakdown and a loss of self-respect were identified as the factors causing the crisis.
The problem exists to some extent on most reserves, particularly those that are isolated and can only be reached by air, said Sidney Garrioch, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinook Ininew Okimowin, which represents 30 northern reserves.
"The problem is prevalent, serious and persistent," Garrioch said. "It's destroying our youth."
He said high suicide rates are also a major problem in some aboriginal communities.
The children's advocate report said "there is an average of 10 reported suicides each year, but no estimate is available on the number of suicide attempts that are not reported."
There were 10 suicides on northern reserves in the last two months alone, and three suicides in five days last June, Garrioch said.
Last January, an eight-year-old boy from Cross Lake First Nation took his life, probably the youngest suicide ever reported, he said.
The statistics are misleading because not all suicides are reported, he said. "I know a lot are not reported."
Three years ago, the chief of Shamattawa First Nation said his community was in a "state of emergency" after three suicides in eight days.
The high suicide rate has not escaped the attention of Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra, the province's chief medical examiner.
Balachandra said he has assembled a team of experts to study the problem of suicides on aboriginal communities.
He said it often seems that the relatives of suicide victims don't report any symptoms or signs that someone is considering ending their lives.
The team wants to find out if that's true, or if there were signs that weren't identified.
If that's the case, it will be necessary to educate the communities about the signs and symptoms that could indicate someone is contemplating suicide, Balachandra said.
It's also possible that aboriginals on reserves offer no warning signs, or present them in different ways than middle-class society.
The two-year-old report on Pauingassi by the Office of the Children's Advocate said there was a clear shortage of resources on the reserve to cope with the problems of solvent abuse and suicide.
Despite that, little has been done to address the problem, Schibler said.
She lashed out at the federal and provincial governments for failing to treat the problem as a medical emergency.
"It's a situation the government can't ignore," she said. "I think most of the people in the cities have no idea of the degree of poverty that aboriginal families face."