Report links oilsands to cancer in Fort Chip

Report links oilsands to cancer in Fort Chip
Jonny Courtoreille of Fort Chipewyan show Dr. Stephane McLachlan of the University of Manitoba an invasive willow. The researchers’ monitoring work is done by incorporating traditional knowledge with Western science.Photo: Michael Tyas.

A report released Monday by University of Manitoba researchers and First Nations in northern Alberta says upstream oilsands industry coupled with inadequate health care is creating a “perfect storm” for a decline in health in the community of Fort Chipewyan.

The study, released Monday afternoon at a press conference in Edmonton, says there is a positive correlation between consumption of contaminated traditional foods, employment in the oilsands and the growing “cancer crisis” experienced by the Aboriginal community, and is the first to link upstream development and environmental decline to cancer occurrence.

“The oilsands industry has a strong influence over the contaminant loads…and is partly responsible for the dietary transition as people shift from eating traditional foods to store bought foods,” said Dr. Stephane McLachlan, the lead researcher on the study. “So a perfect storm is taking place where eating traditional foods makes them sick, switching to store bought foods makes them sick and the health services aren’t adequate to address the declines in health.”

The study, initiated by the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, found high concentrations of heavy metals and carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the most commonly consumed wild foods, with averages emerging over and above those found elsewhere around the globe.

“Total levels of PAHs and levels of carcinogenic and alkylated PAHs were very high relative to other studies on food conducted around the world,” states the report concluding the second phase of the the three-year environmental and health monitoring program. “The daily intake of total PAHs in our study was also high, almost 3X that of the next highest study.”

Arsenic levels in moose, ducks and muskrats were found to be high enough to be of concern for young children, and cadmium levels were also elevated throughout the samples. “Surprisingly,” the study noted, selenium levels were also high enough in the organs and muscle of all wildlife to be of concern for adults and children alike.

Though levels are elevated, the report notes that the daily dietary intake of carcinogenic PAHs is low because of relatively low consumption of traditional foods as residents become more fearful of contaminants.

Of the 94 individuals interviewed for the health portion of the study, 20 (21.3 per cent) had experienced 23 cases of cancer, including four cases of breast cancer and two each of lung, cervical, colon, gall bladder, kidney, prostate and stomach cancer, as well as cholangiocarcinoma, a rare bile duct cancer.

Four cases of cholangiocarcinoma have been identified in the 1,200-person community in recent years. Elsewhere, the disease typically affects only one of every 200,000 to 300,000 people.

While it released data on cancers earlier this year, the provincial government has yet to launch a comprehensive health study in communities downstream from the oilsands.

Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille, who was himself diagnosed with cancer, said it is time for government action.

“No more can we stand here and downplay this issue,” he said at the press conference. “The reality is that our people are dying.”

Forced dietary transition furthering health decline

Apart from making direct links between industry and contaminants in wild foods, the report also linked cultural changes caused by industry to increases in diabetes, respiratory and cardiac problems, reproductive issues, cancer and emotional well being in the community.

Though people still widely consume wild foods, ecosystem changes caused by upstream hydro and oilsands development and consumption limits on wild fish, eggs and meat from around the community are pushing residents to consume a more expensive and “nutritionally deficient” diet of store-bought foods, according to researchers.

“Participants were concerned about declines in the quality of these foods, in the greatest part because of environmental pollutants originating from the Oil Sands. It was notable how many participants no longer consumed locally caught fish because of government-issued consumption advisories and human health concerns,” the report states.

The report emphasizes that declines in well being have been aggravated by “poor communication” on the part of health agencies, along with “inadequate” health care in the communities of Fort Chip, Fort McKay and Fort McMurray.

It recommends a “comprehensive and long-term baseline health study” take place, involving local Aboriginal governments, that incorporate traditional knowledge and provide regular updates through community meetings.

Strengthening and expanding health services in the community will also lead to earlier diagnosis of cancer and other illnesses and improve overall wellbeing, the report concluded.

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