'Alarming' New Study Finds Contaminants in Animals Downstream of Oilsands

Stephane McLachlan

A health study released today by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Manitoba, is the first of its kind to draw associations between environmental contaminants produced in the oilsands and declines in health in Fort Chipewyan, a native community about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The report, Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, finds health impacts for communities downstream of the Alberta oilsands are “positively associated” with industrial development and the consumption of traditional foods, including locally caught fish.

Dr. Stéphane McLachlan, lead environmental health researcher for the report, said the study’s results “as they relate to human health, are alarming and should function as a wakeup call to industry, government and communities alike.”

Findings include generally high concentrations of carcinogenic PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and heavy metals arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats and beavers harvested by community members. A press release for the study says bitumen extraction and upgrading is a major emitter of all of these contaminants.

The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program has released data about the increases in these contaminants, but fails to address and monitor impacts to First Nations traditional foods,” said Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille. “We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report.”

The First Nations worked in concert with University of Manitoba scientists, blending “western science and traditional ecological knowledge” to evaluate contaminant levels and potential community exposure, according to the press release.

This is the first health study that has been conducted in close collaboration with community members of Fort Chipewyan,” McLachlan said in a recent interview.

The results are grounded in the environment and health sciences, but also in the local traditional knowledge shared by community members. Unlike any of the other studies it has been actively shaped and controlled by both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation from the outset.”

The report comes on the heels of the fifth annual ‘healing walk’ in the oilsands region, during which Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the report would “blow the socks off industry and government.”

Concerns over high rates of rare forms of bile duct, cervical and lung cancers have worried residents of Fort Chipewyan, a small community 300 kilometres downstream of the oilsands, for years.

A government report in March 2014 found elevated rates of the three forms of cancer in Fort Chip, but suggested overall cancer rates fall on par with cancer rates elsewhere in the province. The report’s author, Dr. James Tablot, chief medical officer for Alberta health, said there was little evidence environmental factors played a role in the elevated cancer rates.

The report was treated as largely inconclusive and confirmed the need for further, independent study.

An editorial in the Calgary Herald argued the report confirmed the need to “settle the matter once and for all” and called for an independent study.

Only then will the nagging fear — whether founded or unfounded — that the Alberta government is too closely linked with the oilsands to provide objective data and conclusions, be put to rest.”

The community of Fort Chip has struggled for years to have a comprehensive, baseline health study conducted.

In March, Chief Adam suggested it was “time for a real study, that is peer reviewed and done in partnership with our communities.” He suggested the government report was conducted to “ease the public response to this and garner more support for approvals of more projects in the region.”

Today researchers and community leaders called for further investigation of contaminant concentrations, as well as community-based monitoring and improved risk communications from government and industry.