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.

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O'Connor's remarks sparked an international reaction, and were followed shortly in March by comments from Alberta’s Chief Medical officer, who said his data review of cancer records showed that the “overall number of cancers is not significantly higher than expected” in the Fort Chipewyan area versus the rest of Alberta.

The new First Nations study released Monday provides further details of cancer cases: four incidents of breast cancer, four of lung cancer, and two each of cervical, colon, gallbladder, kidney, prostate, and stomach cancer as well as leukemia, said the report.

Also worrying for community members were: neurological illnesses (e.g. sleeping disorders, migraines, and stress), respiratory illnesses (e.g. allergies, asthma) as well as circulatory (e.g. hypertension, coronary) and gastrointestinal (e.g. gallbladder, ulcers) illnesses.

Chemical soup

The study also found:

“Arsenic levels were high enough in muskrat and moose muscle; duck, moose, and muskrat livers; and moose and duck kidneys that they were of concern for young children.”

“Cadmium levels were again elevated in moose kidney and liver samples but also those of beaver and ducks, although muskrat samples were again low. Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys, and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys, specially for children.”

“Total levels of PAHs and levels of carcinogenic and alkylated PAHs were very high relative to other studies on food conducted around the world,” said the report.

The report stated that exposure rates to these contaminants “were generally not of health concern” because of the low amounts of traditional foods that are now consumed as community members transition towards store-bought foods.

A feature-length documentary “One River Many Relations” will be released in October, to communicate issues about health impacts from the oil sands. 

Excerpts have already been released:

Alberta universities 'too biased' - Chief Courtereille

The University of Manitoba and the University of Saskatchewan, in collaboration with the bands, conducted the research.

The choice to go with out-of-province researchers was deliberate.

“Dealing with the Alberta universities were in our view not credible, because of the close ties to the Alberta government…” said Chief Steve Courtereille.

Dr. John O'Connor, who frequently attends to cancer patients in the Fort Chipewayan area said Monday:

"This (study) is just another piece of information which is on top of all other previous scientific reports that have come out," O'Connor said.

"God knows what difference this report will make. But if someone doesn't act, and come to their senses...we've always said comprehensive studies are needed." 

Still, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s leader admitted, his nation shares the responsibility for allowing the industrial free for all, that’s led to so many changes to the environment in northern Alberta.

“We recognize we were partly to blame for granting the approvals of projects.  What we are asking is a slow down of further development, in regards to what is going on in our region, and start cleaning up the mess, and putting down on paper in regards to what you’re putting in the Athabasca River,” said Chief Adam.

The oil sands industry employs 10 percent Aboriginal people, says the Alberta government.  It also brings in $3.5 billion in royalties per year to fund the province's social programs.

CAPP says the oils sands is projected to more than double by 2030, to 5.2 million barrels per day.

With files from Jenny Uechi

North view of Syncrude faciltiies near Fort McMurray, AB - Andrew S. Wright

North view of Syncrude facilities near Fort McMurray, AB - Andrew S. Wright
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