New study to examine health impact of Alberta oilsands

Feb 21, 2013 by

By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal

Fort ChipewyanPhotograph by: Ryan Jackson, file , Edmonton Journal

Fort Chipewyan
Photograph by: Ryan Jackson, file , Edmonton Journal

EDMONTON – An independent study will soon be launched into the health effects of the oilsands on nearby communities.

Partially funded by the provincial and federal governments, the study will be overseen by University of Calgary sociology professor Cora Voyageur and will re-examine cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a native community about 220 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.

Links to other health issues, including autism, will also be explored as researchers try to determine if contaminants from industrial developments are causing illnesses in residents of Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacKay, the native community closest to operations in the oilsands.

A study conducted in 2009 by the Alberta Cancer Board found higher-than-expected rates of rare cancers in Fort Chipewyan, but no research to date has directly connected pollution from the oilsands to incidence of disease.

The 2009 report recommended further analysis to determine possible causes, but until recently, government and two native bands — the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikesew Cree First Nations — were unable to agree on terms of reference for a comprehensive health study. At this point, it is hoped that research can begin as early as spring after memorandums of understanding are signed.

Links between development in the oilsands and contaminants, including cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, were revealed last month in studies released by the U.S. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Wood Buffalo Environmental Association. The study published in the U.S. found traces of hydrocarbons in the sediment of lake bottoms downwind of oilsands operations, but did not include any sampling done as far north as Fort Chipewyan, however.

“My way of thinking, especially in light of these recent studies, is that we need a very strong independent public health voice on this issue,” said Dr. John O’Connor, who became embroiled in controversy in 2003 and 2004 after he reported elevated cancer rates in patients in Fort Chipewyan. “From a public health standpoint, it should have happened a long time ago.”

The province conducted a statistical analysis of cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan and found no evidence rates were higher in the region or the rest of Alberta. That led to O’Connor being accused of causing “undue alarm” by Alberta’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, a charge of which he was later exonerated.

On Tuesday, provincial health officials said they were committed to supporting Fort Chipewyan and Fort MacKay in their efforts to assess the health of their communities.

“We are making progress and are moving forward with the community health assessments,” said Howard May, a spokesman for Alberta’s Health Department. “We are supporting the communities in doing what we all agree is necessary — an overall assessment that will inform future steps.”

Eriel Deranger, communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, is happy the study is about to commence, but disappointed it has taken so long. The 2006 study done by the province was flawed, Deranger said, because it included only patients that lived within Fort Chipewyan’s postal code.

Once diagnosed, members of the native band often move to Fort McMurray and Edmonton for treatment, and those that did were excluded from the study.

“The numbers got skewed because the data was poorly done,” Deranger said. “The report was mainly done simply to placate residents. Now it looks like government finally has got its act together.”

O’Connor said it is critical that the study take a comprehensive look at the issue.

Travis Davies, a spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said industry is glad to see the study begin.

“Industry has long publicly supported more scientific study on potential health concerns in the oilsands region, as we have consistently supported more objective science-based reporting and monitoring on all oilsands environmental issues,” Davies said in an email.

“As an industry, we welcome science. We believe what’s needed is more solid data to build confidence among Canadians that this resource is being developed responsibly and safely.”

O’Connor said he hopes the study thoroughly addresses issues that he first brought to light a decade ago.

“The fact that something is happening is good, but what is actually happening I’m not sure,” said O’Connor, who now treats patients in Fort MacKay and at the Northern Lights Regional Hospital in Fort McMurray. “At the end of the day, it better be credible and of the transparency that nobody will doubt it.

“An urgent study is needed.”

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