Cancer study ‘confirms’ oilsands link
High level of contaminants found in native diet, researchers say
Scientists at the University of Manitoba say they have linked pollution in the oilsands to elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan for the first time.
The impact on health in communities downwind of development is “clear and worrisome,” researcher Stephane McLachlan told a news conference Monday in Edmonton.
“Something unique is happening in Fort Chipewyan, especially around cancer.”
Conducted in collaboration with the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, the study found fish and animals consumed as part of a traditional diet contained unusually high concentrations of contaminants emitted during the extraction and upgrading of bitumen.
Twenty-three cases of cancer were reported among 94 people interviewed as part of the three-year, $1-million study, which was partially paid for by Health Canada and peer-reviewed by its scientists.
“This report confirms what we have suspected about the association between the environmental contaminants from oilsands production and cancer and other illness in our community,” Steve Courtoreille, chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, said.
“We are greatly alarmed and demand further research to expand on these findings. It is time government does something. Enough is enough.”
Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne said the province had not seen the report as of Monday afternoon, but would review its findings.
“The thing I would say, and I want to emphasize, is that as health minister I really sympathize with any community concerned about the health of its members, and I’ve expressed that to the chief,” Horne said.
“Everybody wants to make sure the best evidence is used to make decisions, so we’ll keep working with them in that sphere.”
Samples taken from beavers, ducks, fish, moose and muskrats contained high concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and levels of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium high enough to be of danger to young children.
“Many of the results, as they relate to human health, are alarming,” McLachlan said. “It should function as a wake-up call to industry, government and communities alike.
“It is the first time science has aligned with the leadership, and we are ringing the bell together.”
For years, residents in Fort Chipewyan have asked government to look for potential links between industrial development and health issues to no avail.
Updated statistics released in March by the Alberta Cancer Board confirmed clusters of rare bile duct cancer and cervical cancer in the remote community 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
Edmonton-Strathcon a NDP MP Linda Duncan joined Alberta NDP MLA Rachel Notley in demanding some sort of government intervention. The study recommended government undertake a comprehensive analysis.
“What more evidence does the government need before it initiates a comprehensive community-based health study?” Duncan asked. “What more do they need before they step up to the plate and act?”
Greg Stringham, the vicepresident of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, pointed out that one previous study failed to find a connection between the oilsands and elevated cancer rates, but welcomed the new data.
“Industry is really supportive of any information that leads to the body of evidence,” Stringham said.
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, an emergency room physician, called on Health Canada to work with the World Health Organization to complete a comprehensive study into the health effects of oilsands development in the region.
“The government of Alberta has been dragging its heels for years on this file,” Sherman said.
“At the end of the day, the credibility and integrity of our province and the oilsands is at stake here, on a national and international stage.”