Mounting Evidence of Health Concerns Near Tar Sands Development

Two studies released in the past week have drawn attention the linkage between tar sands development and significant health concerns.  The two reports both released by the Alberta government separately show that the incidence of cancer downstream of tar sands development is higher than expected and that air emissions from a certain type of drilling tar sands operation  is likely causing health problems. These studies add to what is a growing mountain of peer-reviewed science that confirms tar sands operations are contaminating air and water with toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.  In other words, the linkages between tar sands development and potential health impacts are emerging.  At a minimum, the two reports provide further argument supporting calls for  independent studies to determine the cause of these health problems. But also, as the evidence of health concerns continues to grow, there is good reason to limit the rapid growth of the tar sands industry beginning with a rejection of the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Rare and higher rates of cancer in Fort Chipewyan

Last fall, Fort McMurray municipal councilor John Chadi learned that he had an extremely rare case of cancer known as cholangiocarcinoma.  This is an incurable disease that normally has a 1 in 200,000 incidence.  But Fort Chipewyan, a remote community downstream of tar sands operations, has had three of these types of rare cancers.  Dr. John O’Conner, an Alberta family physician treating members of this community, has worked to draw attention to these cancers and John’s case declaring there is a “public health crisis” in this small community.  He has raised questions about whether these cancers are related to tar sands development which is something many physicians in Alberta are afraid to do.   While Dr. O’Conner has stood up for his patients other doctors are more reluctant. There is a chilling effect where doctors in Alberta are reluctant to treat patients who raise concerns about the impact of the industry. 

Dr. O’Conner’s concerns about the rare and increased number of cancers have been affirmed twice first by a 2009 report by the Alberta Cancer Board that found a 30 percent higher rate of certain types of cancers between 1995-2006 than what would be expected for that period of time.  Another study released last week by the Alberta Health Services also confirmed higher rates of certain types of cancer in this small community. While the AHS study confirmed a troubling trend, it potentially underestimated the incidence of cancer by comparing expected rates with the general Alberta population rather than indigenous populations who typically have a lower incidence of cancer. In the end, the AHS study still did not meet the repeated requests by this local communities for an independent study that investigated the cause of these cancers.

Indeed, the Edmonton Journal declared “it is time to settle the matter once and for all”

The residents of Fort Chipewyan are owed a scientific explanation in which they can have complete confidence. They need to know why, for example, between 1992 and 2011, four cases of cervical cancer occurred instead of the statistical norm of one, why there were twice the number of lung cancer cases among women as would be expected, and why there were three cholangiocarcinomas where there should have been none in such a tiny population. – Edmonton Journal editorial board


Air emissions and odors from an in situ operation

In another part of Alberta near the Peace River, Thera Breau, mother of four, decided to move her family away from tar sands operation operated by Baytex Energy which had quadrupled production since 2009.  Thera moved her family away from the area after her four boys experienced stomach aches, eye problems, and open wounds just as tar sands operations resumed.  Karla and Alain Labrecque who also lived in the area near the Baytex facility moved away as “environmental refugees” and have launched an effort to hold the company accountable. 

While there has been considerable media attention on this community in the past few months, families in the area surrounding the tar sands operation have been complaining for years.  They have reported the odours and emissions were causing headaches, diarrhea, loss of balance, dizziness, nausea and illnesses such as asthma.  As a result of these complaints and national media attention, the Alberta Energy Regulator finally conducted  an investigation.  Yesterday, they released a report  confirming that odours and emissions from a type of tar sands drilling (or in situ) operation called Cold Heavy Oil Production with Sand (CHOPS) may be causing some of the health issues raised by local residents. 

What next?

To date, there has not been a comprehensive health study of the health impacts of tar sands operations. Therefore, there has never been a full accounting of the impacts this heavy form of crude has on local communities and cumulatively across North America. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer recently identified the lack of a comprehensive study as something that needed to be addressed by the U.S. State Department.  She raised her concerns about needing to respond to these local communities and pushed for a study as the U.S. evaluates whether to approach the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.  Senator Boxer invited Dr. O’Conner and other experts to speak about how tar sands development may present unique and heightened health impacts. 

Here in the U.S., the Obama administration should investigate the public health risks posted to communities by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.  Certainly, there are the health concerns raised in Alberta near extraction and upgrading operations which should be a focus by the federal Canadian and provincial governments.  But there are also health concerns that have been raised along each step of the process from transporting it by pipeline, to refining, and waste disposal including in the United States.  The public deserves to know the risks and threats of tar sands development because the network of extraction, upgrading facilities, refineries, pipelines, and petroleum coke piles have a major influence across North America.