New report suggests link between oil sand development and incidences of illness including cancer

Andy Radia
Politics Reporter
Canada Politics

Environmentalists and First Nation communities in northern Alberta have long complained that oil sand developments are causing higher incidences of cancer in that region.

A new report, released Monday, gives some credence to that theory.

The study -- commissioned by First Nations groups and conducted by the University of Manitoba's Environmental Conservation Laboratory -- notes that the upstream industrial activity associated with the Athabasca Oil Sands has a negative health impact on residents of the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN)

"Our analysis showed that cancer occurrence was significantly higher for those who had worked in the Oil Sands and for those that frequently consumed traditional foods and locally caught fish contaminated by heavy metals and PAHs.

"This outcome is the first direct link between Oil Sands development and downstream health and well-being, in Fort Chipewyan and, for that matter, anywhere."

The report notes that arsenic levels, on the two reserves, were high in muskrat and moose muscle; cadmium levels were elevated in beaver and ducks; and mercury was prominent in moose kidneys, and duck muscle.

"This report confirms what we have always suspected. about the association between environmental contaminants from oil sands production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community," MCFN Chief Steve Courtoreille said in a statement.

"The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Programme has released data about the increases in these contaminants, but fails to address and monitor impacts to First Nations traditional foods. We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report."

[ Related: OECD urges Canada to hike oil sands taxes ]

The issue of the oil sand development 'causing cancer' was first brought to light in 2006 when Dr. John O’Connor reported a high number of cases of unusual cancers, particularly a rare form known as bile duct cancer in the region.

In March, an Alberta Health Services study noted that while the incidences of three kinds of cancer -- bile duct, cervical and lung cancer -- were higher than normal in the region, there wasn't "strong evidence for an association between any of these cancers and environmental exposure."

First Nation groups weren't convinced.

"Although the report states that cancer is not higher then expected we can’t argue the fact that people are getting sick and people are getting cancers. stated Chief Allan Adam of the ACFN.

"It’s time for a real study, that is peer reviewed and done in partnership with our communities."

The report's authors recommend a large-scale independent study "done by internationally credible institutions like the World Health Organization."

[ Related: Academics call for oilsands moratorium, U.S.-Canada carbon co-operation ]

Meanwhile, the Alberta New Democrats want the provincial government to get involved and put more environmental controls on the oil sand industry.

"This study shows that the previous AHS claim that there is no relationship between oil sands activity and downstream human health was based on political wishful thinking and not on science," said NDP Environment critic Rachel Notley.

"Today, I urge the government to meet with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation with a new mandate to work together to urgently adopt measures that will protect these communities from further human health and environmental hazards due to unchecked industrial activity in the oil sands."

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