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A life cut short in Fort McMurray raises questions about cancer rates near oil sands

 "I said to her, 'did you enjoy your life?' She said, 'Yeah, I did. I did enjoy my life, but I got robbed.’”
Photo of Barbara Jewers, who passed away in September 2013 from bile duct cancer
Photo of Barbara Jewers, who passed away in September 2013 from bile duct cancer.

Riaz Khan stops to collect himself as he recalls the weeks he spent at Barbara Jewers' bedside in the Fort McMurray hospital.

Jewers was Khan's on-and-off life partner for over 20 years. She passed away of bile duct cancer at age 47.

Jewers was "always very healthy," Khan told the Vancouver Observer. Khan now owns and manages a restaurant in Trinidad, having abandoned his job running heavy equipment in the tar sands. It was dirty work. He recalls coming home and blowing his nose and "the stuff that came out was black." 

He was only too glad to leave the tar sands behind. But Jewers remained at her job there. As much as Khan hated the work, Jewers loved it, and her dedication paid off with a job in management.

"She was a great athlete. She never smoked, she drank a couple of glasses of wine a week. She got diagnosed in June 2013 as Stage 4 — you don’t wish to see someone you love go through that."

Partly due to a lack of government research on tar sands toxins, there is no conclusive proof that Jewers cancer was linked to her work. But Khan believes it was. "Nothing could have predicted it, other than her work. She worked in the open-mine pits for years before managing tailings ponds."

Barbara Jewers and Riaz Khan in a photo provided by Riaz Kahn

Dr. John O'Connor treated Jewers in her last days in the hospital. O'Connor was somber as he reflected on her life. 

"She had no medical history at all. She was a very healthy woman and lived an exemplary life," said O'Connor. "It was absolutely shocking that someone with the background that she has.... [with] no bad habits, the only connection that we could make, trying to figure out why— if there's ever an answer to that question— the only connection to risk factors was the tar sands."

Recommendation for comprehensive health study ignored

Bile duct cancer —also known as cholangiocarcinoma— occurs in one out of every 100,000 to 200,000 people per year. It usually strikes men over sixty years of age. It is strange then, O'Connor said, that Wood Buffalo Municipality, with a population of 116,407 (2012 Census) has recorded at least 6 cases in the last decade.

Last year, there were at least two cases of bile duct cancer in Fort McMurray and another in the remote hamlet of Fort Chipewyan (pop. 1,100), located downstream of the oil sands. Over the past decade, there have been four confirmed cases of the rare disease.

"This represents a cluster far in excess over what would have been expected," said Dr. Colin Soskolne, a professor emeritus with the University of Alberta who taught epidemiology in the School of Public Health for 28 years. 

A targeted study on cancer rates in Wood Buffalo Municipality—which includes Fort Chipeywan, Fort McMurray and Fort McKay—has never taken place. This is despite the fact that in 2009, the Alberta Cancer Board, after a review of cancer numbers in Fort Chipeywan, recommended further investigation for that community. The Alberta Government has never commented on the overall health impacts on Wood Buffalo Municipality from the tar sands. 

In March, however, the Alberta government released a report of its cancer numbers in Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the tar sands, which became notorious for deformed fish.

Alberta's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. James Talbot, said the review showed little evidence of connections between oil sands pollution and cancer. “The conclusions of the report are that overall cancer rates in the region are what we would be expected for the rest of Alberta," Talbot said.

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