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Broken trust: Alberta family without answers about oil sands' health impact

When an Alberta mom met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie about oil-sands emissions pollution, his advice stunned her.

Labrecque family still seeking answers about oil sands's health impact
Karla Labrecque and family in happier times before bitumen tank emissions forced them to leave Alberta
At an unprecedented Alberta Energy Regulator hearing for health complaints about oil sands emissions in the Peace River region, area resident Karla Labrecque spoke of the myriad obstacles she faced when talking to doctors about her symptoms, believed to be caused by oil pollution.
 
Following a troubling year when Labrecque suffered dizziness, fatigue, and migraines that felt like a "2-by-4" to her head, she said she decided to get herself checked out with a doctor in 2011. 
 
Her nasal passages were "overwhelmingly red", and she had recently fallen down the stairs while doing laundry.  Her two kids and husband Alain had similar woes.  The family lived just 500 metres from four bitumen tanks that reeked of sulphur.
When she finally met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie who diagnosed her with having airborne pollution, his advice stunned her.
 
“He just told me to move,” Labrecque said under oath at the hearing that ended Friday.
 
“He said… you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don't matter. Move.”
 
The industry-funded oversight agency heard two weeks of testimony from Peace River residents with health concerns about odours and emissions from the oil sands industry.
 
Labrecque claims the specialist who made the provocative comments was Dr. Mel Delacruz. 
 
The Vancouver Observer called Dr. Delacruz at his medical office Friday, but he said he was instructed by his lawyer not to speak about the matter, and hung up the phone.
 
Unfortunately for Labrecque, her alleged encounter with the doctor was only the start of a sad journey through Alberta’s medical system that ultimately failed to help her know the truth about what was making her, her husband Alain, and two little children sick. 
 
The grain-farming family had previously enjoyed northern Alberta’s big skies, fresh air, and the opportunities that came from hard work. 
 
But fearing for their health, the family relocated to Smithers, B.C.
 

Doctors afraid to speak out

 
An environmental health expert hired by the Alberta government testified at the hearing last week that many Alberta doctors are afraid to speak out against the oil sands.  The industry has pumped billions in investment into the region in recent years. 
 
Labrecque said Dr. Delacruz spoke to her about the troubles that can come to doctors who connect oil sands to health problems.
 
“[Dr. Delacruz] then proceeded to tell me about patient-doctor confidentiality, and how there was a doctor in Fort Mac who got [dragged] through the courts,” Labrecque told the hearing.
 
Labrecque says the specialist was talking about Fort McMurray’s Dr. John O’Connor – a family physician who was threatened with having his license taken away for sounding the alarm about cancer rates near the oil sands several years ago.  The Alberta Medical Association rallied to his defence.
 
Dr. John O'Connor, a physician who raised concerns about the high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan downstream of the oil sands in 2006. 
 
On Wednesday, Dr. O’Connor said doctors need to be “advocates". 
 
“It is a very tough position to have to take… to suggest that the goose that lays the golden egg might be causing some health issues.”
 
“To question the possible connection between… health issues and exposure to pollutants from industry has been a no-go area for so many years,” said Dr. O’Connor. 

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