"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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