Health officials in Alberta confirmed Friday that there are more cases of cancer than expected in a small aboriginal village downstream from the massive oil sands plants, but they said there was no cause for residents to be alarmed.
People in the village of Fort Chipewyan, a one-time trading post on the northeast shore of Lake Athabasca, say oil sands developments may be responsible for rare bile-duct cancers first spotted by a doctor in the community in 2006. …
The village is about 260 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, where a number of projects have been established to mine the oil sands, as part of the process that converts tar-like bitumen into synthetic crude oil.
Lake Athabasca is fed by the Athabasca River, which flows through the project region, and earlier studies have found unsafe levels of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon in the lake's fish, sediments, water and wildlife.
The story notes that mine tailings don't go into the Athabasca River. Instead, they sit in giant toxic tailings ponds.
The story doesn't note that the Peace River also flows into Lake Athabasca, but I don't believe the industrial presence on the Peace is as heavy as it is on the Athabasca.
For history to this story, here's a March 10, 2006 CBC.ca article:
Dr. John O'Connor, a physician and medical examiner for the remote northern community, says the population of 1,200 has been disproportionately affected by a high number of both rare and common cancers.
“I'm having increasing difficulty explaining to myself and to my patients why,” said O'Connor, noting the cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan exceeds that of many larger populations. …
There's a particular type of cancer that has been diagnosed in the community that normally affects one in 100,000 people. In Fort Chipewyan, five people have died from this particular cancer, said O'Connor.
The doctor said he's also observed an unusually high rate of thyroid problems and other immune-related diseases.
CBC.ca Edmonton did an in-depth feature on the Fort Chip situation. Check out what happened to O'Connor:
In November 2006, residents discovered a Suncor Energy study predicted via modelling, that arsenic levels in moose meat and other food sources used by the residents in Fort Chipewyan are up to 453 time acceptable limits in terms of cancer risk.
Despite these alarming findings, Fort Chipewyan’s community leaders said they had to send numerous letters to the provincial government demanding further study before Alberta Health and Wellness agreed to investigate arsenic levels in the area. A spokesperson for Alberta’s health minister, Howard May, denied those claims and said a study of the arsenic levels had been initiated as soon as the Suncor report became public.
Alberta Health completed its study in March 2007, concluding arsenic levels were much lower in the area than had been reported previously. The new analysis, published in March 2007, found arsenic levels were only 17 – 30 times the acceptable levels, and found they were no higher than samples taken from another northern community.
Given the dramatically conflicting findings, the people in Fort Chipewyan asked for a more comprehensive, independent and peer-reviewed analysis. The Alberta government has not responded to the request.
In March 2007, senior medical officials at Health Canada used the Alberta Health analysis as the basis for a complaint against O’Connor, accusing the physician of causing undue alarm in Fort Chipewyan and causing mistrust of government. They filed the complaint with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons, which began an investigation.
College rules prevented O’Connor from talking publicly about the probe, but when news of the complaint surfaced, members of the community and fellow doctors rallied around him, suggesting it was an attempt to muzzle the outspoken physician. Members of the Alberta Medical Association (March 2007) and The Canadian Medical Association (September 2007) passed motions supporting a doctor’s right to speak out publicly about concerns for his patients.
About six months after the complaint was filed, the investigator looking into the complaint decided there was no foundation for the allegations against O’Connor. However, the college’s registrar, Trevor Theman, decided further investigation was needed and overruled the decision. Two years later, the college still hasn’t ruled on the allegations.
Doctor leaves town
After his son was violently robbed on the streets of Fort McMurray, in 2007 O’Connor decided to move back to the East Coast where he had started his practice in Canada.