Alberta doctors asked to treat oilsands-related illness

Alberta doctors asked to treat oilsands-related illness
Twenty six organizations signed an open letter asking the Alberta Medical Association to support doctors treating oil-related illness after recent reports from Peace River residents that allege treatment refusal.Photo: Stop Baytex campaign.

A group of 26 organizations is calling on the Alberta Medical Association (AMA) to investigate why doctors in Peace River refused to treat oilsands-related illness after evidence emerged last month documenting treatment refusal when health problems were linked to bitumen emissions.

Environmental, health and landowner rights organizations sent an open letter to the AMA last Friday urging the association to determine whether physicians are reluctant to treat oil-related illness “potentially due to fears of political or industry retribution.”

The letter is in response to research requested by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) made public last month documenting that physicians in the Peace River area refused care or would not diagnose patients who professed to have health problems caused by bitumen emissions.

The research was based on testimony from residents near Baytex Energy’s cold heavy oil production (CHOP) project close to Peace River, who say they were turned away after suggesting their health concerns were connected to the oil project’s emissions.

“Due to the seriousness of these allegations, we believe the AMA needs to look into this matter to see if there is anything the AMA can do to further support physicians so that they feel able to fully advocate on behalf of their patients,” the open letter states.

Mike Hudema of Greenpeace Canada, one of the 26 organizations behind the open letter, said Greenpeace has been monitoring the situation in Peace River for some time, but after weeks of inaction following the AER’s report, felt compelled to take action.

“More than three weeks now have gone by since that report was first tabled and we heard absolutely nothing, so we really felt something needs to be done,” he told The Journal.

Hudema said Albertans should not be questioning whether or not their doctor is doing everything in their power to understand their illness and suggest treatments without fear of repercussions from industry or government.

“In some cases (doctors) told residents their best option was to move because they were just a small cog in a large machine,” he said.

“To me it feels like doctors in the area are scared to make any link to the tar sands industry either because of loyalty to that industry or, more potentially, because of fear of reprisals from either industry or the government.”

Hudema said the problem is not limited to the Peace River area, as Greenpeace has received other reports from Albertans claiming doctors have refused to consider the link between oilsands emissions and illness.

Dr. John O’Connor, a physician in the Fort Chipewyan area, drew harsh criticism from government and industry a few years ago, nearly losing his medical license after raising red flags about the presence of rare cancers in the community and the potential link to upstream oilsands industry.

Hudema said the AMA needs to ensure physicians in the province feel comfortable making connections to the oil and gas industry if there is potential for concern.

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