"So, where in God's name is public health?" doctor asks, as toxic mercury levels in tarsands revealed

Ft. McMurray doctor reacts as study reviewed and published in Environmental Science and Technology journal suggests  oil sands are "source of airborne (mercury) emissions to local landscapes and water bodies."

Photo by Andrew S. Wright

A new Environment Canada study has found high mercury levels in a 'bull's eye' area around oil sands developments in northern Alberta, CTV reported yesterday. 

The study, which was reviewed and published in Environmental Science and Technology journal, suggests that the oil sands are "a source of airborne (mercury) emissions to local landscapes and water bodies."

Mercury -- a dangerous neurotoxin which can cause impairment in speech, hearing and walking, and lead to severe disabilities in infants -- was found to be 13 times higher than normal around 60 km north of Fort McMurray, close to Fort McKay. Scientists found that at least 17,000 square km were affected by mercury deposits that likely came from oil sands development, though only a small part of that area had extremely high mercury levels.

Human health risks noted, but where are public health authorities? 

The report's authors said mercury was a potent neurotoxin that "bioaccumulates through foodwebs" and "can reach levels in fish and wildlife that may pose health risks to human consumers." 

A response from Alberta Health is pending. When approached for comment about health studies earlier this week, a spokeswoman confirmed that it had only reported on the remote hamlet of Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the oil sands, and had not done any studies on either Fort McMurray or Fort McKay.

A doctor who worked for years in the communities surrounding the oil sands asked why health officials weren't taking action to deal with the issue. 

"This is something that was brewing.  Now we have this," Dr. John O'Connor said. "So, where in God's name is public health?" 

The research was conducted by the joint Alberta-Ottawa oil sands monitoring program (JOSM). Alberta Health issued a warning about eating eggs from some water birds downstream from the oil sands last month.

An Environment Canada study found that levels of mercury have gone up significantly in the eggs in the last three decades, with some increases of up to 139 per cent. But while scientists found rising mercury levels in the area since 2013, the province only recently urged Fort Chipewyan residents to limit bird egg consumption. 

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The report indicates that readings were up to 1000 ng m-2. Now Health Canada indicates that for a residence, the point of action is 1 ug m3. Now 1 ug is 1000 ng's so the absolute max value in the survey was found in the heart of the development. Now the water guidelines for Mercury according to Health Canada allows for 0.001 mg/L. Convert mg to ng you have 1 mg = 1,000 ng's.  So essentially this report is much ad about nothing


Clarify the clarify?

Geoguy, your second to last sentence doesn't make sense to me.  Could you clarify please?  Thx.


The second to last sentence is " Now the water guidelines for Mercury according to Health Canada allows for 0.001 mg/L."

What I meant to say in the last sentence is 0.001 mg/L equals 1000 ng/L.  In the report it was mentioned that the highest reading of 1000 ng was obtained in the middle of the development. Hence my conclusion.

Yes Hg is released in the process, as it is released in about every other manufacturing process across this country. Hydro electric systems, coal burning power generating stations, various manufacturing processes, waste incineration - all of which can add amounts of HG to the environment well above that reported here.


mercury levels NE Alberta

The point is that mercury bio-accumulates.  It may be .0001 in drinking water but by the time a small fish eats many times its weight in bugs the level may be .001.  A bigger fish eats many times its weight in small fish and a bigger fish eats him.  By the time the big fish is 20 years old it can have a lot of mercury in it.  Then you or I catch that fish and eat it.  That's why it is a concern. 

Drinking water levels are not the real danger in this case.  You could never drink enough water to ingest that much mercury.  But Fort Chipewyan and Fort McKay with a long heritage of subsisting on fish and wildlife including eggs are seeing their food security being compromised by contamination.

Fort MC Murray

Three months ago my cousin retired to the coast at 56 years old to enjoy being close to his family and hobbies he enjoyed such as fishing. He died a horrible death of stomach cancer. He had worked at Fort McMurray all his adult life. If rotten things are happening to children 60 kms away, can you imagine how my cousin got cancer being right there? The fracking must stop and the new ones trying to get into BC had better think again. The First Nations in this Province oppose it and until they reach consensus it will never happen. And they will never come to the point of allowing that to happen.

Geo_guy wrote:

So essentially this report is much ad about nothing


Your comment is much ado about nothing. I suggest you drink some of the downstream river water, and fill the VP water cooler with it as well. No amount of Mercury is acceptable to the rest of us.

Woof Fibre LNG facility proposed & Health issues

Paralleling this article, The Health of humans and wildlife (sea, land, air) have been largely discounted by the proponents of the proposed Wood fibre LNG facility in Squamish, and the politicians/ leaders have largely buried their heads in the sand and ignored the health risks and costs. Certainly at this point they have not undertaken any comprehensive research of the potential impacts on health short- and long-term, nor have they calculated the likely costs of deteriorating health attributable to the W-LNG initiatives on land and water. To repeat what the good doctor asked ":...where in God's name is Public Health?"  At this point, not in Squamish or up and down Howe Sound!