by Dawn Johnston
Another study has surfaced showing marked increases in life-threatening illnesses to people who live or work near tar sands oil development projects.
The University of Manitoba study, which examines the health of First Nations that live near tar sands operations, finds they have a much higher incidence of cancer than the general population. Why? Besides polluting the air and water, environmental contaminants from production are highly concentrated in wildlife, many of which they eat.
The contaminants either impact human development, are carcinogenic, or damage DNA. Tissue samples of ducks, moose, muskrats and beavers show high concentrations of byproducts of tar sands production and deformed fish are now commonplace in rivers. Sadly, First Nations members are thus abandoning their traditional diet and downstream communities are also feeling the health impacts.
"This report confirms what we have always suspected about the
association between environmental contaminants from oil sands production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community… We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report," says Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille.
The incidence of cancer in downstream Fort Chipewyan (near the Arctic Circle) was 30% higher than average from 1995-2006, according to a 2009 study commissioned by the governments of Alberta and Canada. Residents are challenging Shell’s plans to expand tar sands (approved by the federal government) there on the grounds that it violates aboriginal rights.
People that live near pipelines – or proposed ones like Keystone – are also concerned because ruptures are commonplace.
A slew of toxic chemicals: mercury, benzene, lead, napthenic acid, ammonia, arsenic, and seven different types of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – linked to cancer, birth defects, and organ damage. Sediment and snow samples in tar sand regions also detect increasing levels of methylmercury, a neurotoxin that causes decreased attention and intelligence in children and cardiovascular abnormalities in adults.
Unfortunately, due to recent intimidation tactics by the Canadian government, many organizations that would expose this have been muted. Some of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s more overt tactics include changing environmental laws to suit tar sands development and firing scientists that get in the way. Even physicians are shying away from treating complaints related to exposure to avoid getting involved in the controversy.
Amazingly, when the government was taken to task under NAFTA for not enforcing its own water pollution laws that would hold tar sands companies accountable, it simply demanded the investigation be terminated.
The study, Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations in Northern Alberta, contributes to the growing knowledge base about the impact of tar sands development.
Says Desmond Tutu, tar sands development "reflects negligence and greed," and it must stop.
For a summary of health effects, visit: