Mounting evidence that tar sands activity is causing health problems

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer from California has connected the dots and is pointing to growing evidence that communities living near tar sands mining and drilling operations, pipelines, and refineries are showing serious health risks and problems.  An issue brief published by NRDCTar Sands Crude Oil:  Health Effects of a Dirty and Destructive Fuel, profiles some of the latest evidence including scientific research that tar sands activity is causing increasing levels of air and water pollution that are then linked to health problems including cancer.  Tar sands development affects communities across North America and includes a network of mining, drilling, and upgrading operations, pipelines and refineries.  This network spans from northern Canada to refineries in California, the Gulf Coast, and the Midwest.  The science is mounting but state, provincial, and federal governments have done too little to protect public health.  This scientific evidence was not considered by the State Department’s environmental review of the Keystone XL pipeline.   This mounting evidence shows there are considerable risks with expanding the tar sands industry. 

NRDC's new issue brief reviews the latest scientific literature on this important issue.

Air pollution from tar sands operations in Alberta

Studies by the National Academy of Sciences have noted that expanding tar sands activities have  increased air pollution near Fort McMurray (the epicenter of tar sands development) and just outside Edmonton, Alberta.  The most recent 2014 study looked at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) which are chemicals known to damage DNA, are carcinogens, or cause developmental impacts.  This study found that environmental impact studies drafted by the tar sands industry have systemically underestimated levels of this pollution.  A 2013 study noted elevated level of hazardous air pollutants coming from upgrading facilities north of Edmonton noting elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers in areas surrounding these operations north of Edmonton. 

Water pollution from tar sands operations

Researchers have confirmed the presence of elevated levels of toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which can be traced directly to expansion of tar sands production.  Some waters in Alberta exceed Canadian standards for chemicals linked to cancer, genetic damage, birth defects, and organ damage.  Scientists have also found that tar sands development is leading to increasing amount of methylmecurcry in Alberta’s waterways including an exponential increase within 30 miles of tar sands upgraders.  Methylmercury is a potential neurotoxin causing development and behavioral problems.

Tailings ponds which now cover an area the sized of Washington DC contain multiple toxic chemicals including arsenic, benzene, lead, mercury, naphthenic acid, and ammonia.  As much as 2.9 million gallons of toxic tailings leak into the environment every day.  A 2014 study showed that extreme concentrations of PAHs present in tailings may be evaporating into the air and then deposited into water.  New federal research by Environment Canada released in February 2014 confirms that leaking tailings ponds are leaching into groundwater and then into the Athabasca River.

Rising cancer rates in First Nations communities

Scientists have confirmed increased incidences of cancer in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta.  There, scientists have noted an increased cancer rate from 1995 to 2009 – 30 percent higher than would be typically expected.  Dr. John O’Conner, an Alberta physician, has for years called for further investigation of cancer incidences.  To date, there has not been an independent study of these cancers despite repeated called by First Nations. Dr. O’Conner was invited by Senator Boxer to speak in Washington to share his observations.]

Tar sands pipeline spills

Large quantities of tar sands were spilled from leaking pipelines into two communities in Marshall, Michigan  in 2010 and Mayflower Arkansas in 2013.  After the spill in Michigan, 320 people suffered adverse health effects including cardiovascular, dermal, gastrointestinal, neurologic, ocular, renal and respiratory impacts according to the Michigan Department of Public Health.  In Arkansas, air monitoring showed significantly increased levels of benzene.  Raw tar sands is mixed with diluting agents to move the substance through pipelines.  The specific content of diluting agents are unknown as they are proprietary but most formulations include natural gas liquid condensate containing volatile hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. So far, the federal government in both Canada and the U.S. has failed to study or adopt regulations to deal with the chemical export of the unique tar sands mixture flowing through pipelines and has not commissioned any studies regarding the long-term human impacts of spills.

Tar sands refinery emissions

Chemicals in tar sands may be released as air pollutants during the refining process.  Diluted tar sands contain 102 times more copper, 11 times more nickel and 5 time more lead than conventional crude oil. Diluted bitumen from tar sands has notably higher levels of certain sulfur compounds called mercaptans that are highly volatile and linked to central nervous system problems. Diluted bitumen also contains higher levels of naphthenic acids which can significantly increase the corrosive properties of crude oil at high temperatures during the refining process.  Low quality crudes like tar sands have been identified as a contributing factor in a major  refinery accidents like the one at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, California which sent 15,000 residents to area hospitals and endangered the lives of 19 workers.

Petroleum Coke impacts - a byproduct from tar sands refining

The refining of tar sands creates a by-product called petroleum coke which contains relatively high concentrations of metals including mercury, lead, arsenic, chromium, selenium, and nickel which people are exposed to when they breathe dust blown from piles of petroleum coke.  This metal-laden dust can contaminate nearby homes and yards where it can accumulate.  The dust is composed of particulate matter, which is recognized by the U.S. EPA to contribute to a number of negative health effects.  Many of the metals in petroleum coke piles are carcinogens and linked to other health problems.

Health Concerns Deserve More Attention

Federal, state, provincial, agencies should evaluate all of the potential impacts of tar sand crude.  In Canada, governments should conduct independent investigations into the health impacts on locally affected communities particularly Fort McMurray, Fort Chipewyan, and Edmonton, Alberta.  New proposals for tar sands operations and infrastructure including pipelines and refineries must consider human health impacts especially as the tar sands industry seeks to triple production.   The Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline did not adequately consider these issues.  Until there is a better understanding of how these projects will cumulatively impact human health, efforts to expand the tar sand industry should stop.  This means rejecting the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

Go to to ask President Obama to reject the pipeline.