This Article is part of the Tar Sands Reporting Project special report See the full report

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.

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Following Labrecque’s encounter with her specialist, odours and emissions near her home did not improve.  
 
So under the advice of an Alberta Health Services representative, she went to a hospital in Peace River to late 2012 to get a “toxicity test.”  She claims the ER doctor initially declined her. 
 
“When [the ER doctor] said 'you can’t do [the] test'... it’s like, where do you go from there?” she asked.
 
But under pressure from Labrecque and her husband, the ER doctor obtained higher approval for the test.  He returned to sample her blood.
 

'Useless' blood test

 
Labrecque was floored to later learn the blood test she received was "practically useless" for determining petrochemical contamination.  

O’Connor and one other physician contacted by the Vancouver Observer reviewed Karla’s blood test results (with her permission), and both said, the test could not possibly have revealed oil emission chemicals. 
 
blood test

Labrecque was also handed a questionnaire at the hospital designed specifically for patients with "hydrocarbon odour / emissions" concerns.

Trouble was, the form had almost no questions about hydrocarbon exposures.
 

Don't blame the emissions

Instead, the form quizzed on many other factors, such as medication, stress, travel history, etc. 

“They were asking me about depression [and such] – it was like they were trying to blame it on something else, and not the [oil] emissions,” she said.
 
Dr. O’Connor says the Alberta Health questionnaire seemed more intent on ruling out the oil sands industry.
 
“I don’t know why in a setting where someone is exposed to petrochemical emissions – that that isn’t a central focus of a form or questionnaire like that.”
 
“You don’t ignore the elephant – you include it.”
 
Alberta Health spokesperson Timothy Wilson said the form's 32nd and final question did include an opportunity to list synthetic chemicals exposures, and was a "useful tool" for doctors.

Protection of industry alleged

O’Connor says he hopes these medical obstacles are not part of a “deliberate directive” to prevent the truth about oil sands' health effects.
 
“My experience… strongly suggests to me that government does not want to know [and] is not interested in knowing what’s going on,” said Dr. O’Connor.
 
Now out of province, Labrecque says she's no closer to confirming what, if any, of the oil-emissions chemicals caused her family harm.  
 
"We don’t know the long term effects [on my kids] – if this is going to hurt them 10 years down the road,” said Labrecque.
 
The Alberta Energy Regulator completed its hearings Friday, and has committed to reporting recommendations by March 31.

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