Confirmed: Health Threats From Tar Sands Production

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.

Tar Sands

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: 

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Comments on “Confirmed: Health Threats From Tar Sands Production”

  1. David G McRae

    Should the rapid expansion and development of the Canadian oil sands (TAR SANDS) be allowed to continue, the corporate strangle hold on Canadian democracy will turn blue and die a horrible death. CAPP’s intention to produce in excess of three million barrels of product each day will mean Canadians are NO LONGER in control of our country’s ability to establish meaningful environmental regulations to protect our coastlines, watersheds and air-sheds not to mention our ability to protect human health concerns. It would appear that our CAPP controlled Harper government will stop at nothing in order to keep BIG OIL dollars flowing into their reelection war-chest. Whatever the wish list of the corporate boardroom is, Harper will see that all regulations are in their favor and NO ONE will be allowed to speak against them. This includes fellow Con’s and appropriate scientists.

  2. Reinier Kanis

    Thanks for posting this, it sure took long enough for the findings to become public. We have known for years it was killing First Nations downstream and or downwind of the industry.

    When the snow turns brown in the winter, and that water flows into the river, you know that there is something wrong. But then again, money is far more important than human life, it’s the corporate mentality that our government obeys.

    Until corporations are legislated to serve the public, they will always be threat to the public.


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