First Nations' cancer linked to oil sands’ toxins in wild food: study

Deeply frustrated by provincial denials of health concerns, two First Nations commissioned their own study using out-of-province university researchers to examine oil sands pollutants in their foods.

Suncor oil sands tar sands facility Fort McMurray
photo of Syncrude and Suncor oil sands bitumen processing facilities near Fort McMurray, Alberta by Andrew S. Wright

Two northern Alberta First Nations downstream of massive oil sands smoke plumes and tailing ponds released a human health study Monday, implicating the growth of the industry to many serious Aboriginal health concerns, including cancer.

The worry?  Oil sands pollution is contaminating their wild food.

“I don’t know what it is that they’re hiding.  What’s causing these cancers?  Why is it so hard that they cannot take it out of their production, so it’s not hurting anyone or killing anyone?” asked Chief Steve Courtereille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation at an Edmonton press conference.

The new scientific study states the region's "country food" contains elevated levels of toxic metals and carcinogens, that members of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations traditionally eat.  

But recent fears that oil sands pollution is contaminating the food, has led fewer people to eat it.

The research was partly funded by Health Canada and reviewed by federal scientists.

Moose meat Fort Chipewyan - Youtube video still

Moose meat being prepared near Fort Chip Chipewyan - Youtube video

The wild foods include: moose, ratroot, duck, wild mint, spruce gum, pickerel, caribou, and Labrador tea.  Fish are no longer eaten from the Athabasca River, due to government health warnings.

The study reveals these foods contained elevated levels of heavy metals and carcinogens, and that nearly a quarter of the Aboriginal participants -- 23 out of 94 -- had cancer, among other ailments.

Government not trusted

The push for the study was motivated by a deep distrust of provincial and federal health officials, who they say have "failed" to comprehensively study the issue, said the leaders.

“One thing most striking… is that both province and federal governments refuse to do anything about [the high rates of cancer].  Even though the pressure is escalating,” said ACFN Chief Allan Adam.

“We are being brainwashed by the Conservative government that everything is ok.  It’s not,” he added. 

Conservative Health Minister Rona Ambrose’s press secretary was reached in Ottawa to comment on the study, but a statement was not provided.  

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said:

“A recent Alberta study (March 2014) confirms the results of earlier studies (e.g. Royal Society of Canada) that indicate no linkage between oil sands development and health concerns in Fort Chipewyan."

“It is the responsibility of the responsible health officials to provide the definitive interpretation of health studies and to assess whether further studies are required. And we fully support recommendations made by the responsible health authorities in this regard,” wrote Geraldine Anderson in an e-mail.

Questions about cancer in the oil sands have been swirling for months, since Alberta doctor John O’Connor raised concerns in Washington, D.C. in February with U.S. Senators about studies linking the oil sands’ pollution to elevated cancer levels.

Dr. John O'Connor - photo by Andrew S. Wright - May 2014

Dr. John O'Connor - photo by Andrew S. Wright - May 2014

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