Elevated cancer rates
in Fort Chipewyan support Dr O'Connor's claim
From Fort Chipewyan Health
Data Analysis by Alberta Health & Wellness and
Alberta Cancer Board, April 2006
A northern Alberta physician who
publicly aired concerns over carcinogenic pollution
from the massive oilsands development is being investigated
by the province's College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The complaint against him comes from none other than
Health Canada, which claims the physician caused "undue
The doc widely held to be
Dr John O'Connor of Fort Chipewyan says he's
got a hunch the copious amounts of arsenic dumped into
the water by the project might explain why so many of
his mostly aboriginal patients are presenting with cancer
including rarer forms like cholangiocarcinoma
(bile duct cancer).
The College won't confirm or deny
that Dr O'Connor has indeed been targeted. The family
doc is no firebrand and an unlikely martyr for the environmental
cause. When the government released selected data from
a study and concluded that people in the community were
less likely than the average Albertan to die of cancer,
it pained him to disagree (fuller data, released later,
would suggest his hunches were largely right). "I would
absolutely accept it, if I saw they had done a complete
analysis..., had all the information that they needed,
and had the report peer reviewed prior to publishing
it," he said at the time.
In fact, the whole business of
fighting with the government made him literally sick
and he said that he's planning to leave Fort Chip (as
it's known locally) in the summer because of it. "It's
been so consuming and so frustrating that my blood pressure
has gone up and I have difficulty sleeping," he told
the CBC late last year even before the complaint
to the College was filed. "It's just I'm worn out by
Dr O'Connor is now refusing to
speak to the media until the complaint with the College
is settled, his lawyer says.
Colleagues and members of the community came to the
quick conclusion that Dr O'Connor is paying the price
for attacking a sacred cow Alberta's multi-billion
dollar oil industry.
"It's a similar scenario to what
had me fired in 2002 for speaking in favour of ratifying
the Kyoto Accord in the interest of public health,"
said Dr David Swann, Liberal MLA for Calgary Mountain
View, on his blog. Dr Swann was medical officer for
the Palliser Health Region at the time he got the axe.
"I admire Dr O'Connor for his courage
in standing up and speaking out on issues that should
concern all Albertans," added Dr Swann in a March 6
interview with Fort McMurray Today. "This is
not acceptable. We're a free country. We, as professionals,
are called upon to act in the public interest and to
raise issues, to challenge vested interest whether it's
government's or industry's monetary interest for the
betterment of the society."
Dr Swann and internist Dr Michel
Sauvé who's head of the intensive care unit in
the same Fort McMurray hospital where Dr O'Connor is
based and also regularly flies in to Fort Chip to treat
patients both feel that this case is evidence
that whistleblower legislation is needed to protect
doctors. Dr Sauvé has said he thinks the complaint was
The parties involved in the alleged
complaint against Dr O'Connor aren't saying much.
"We can confirm that Health Canada
physicians have lodged a complaint which involves several
professional practice issues with the Alberta College
of Physicians and Surgeons against a northern Alberta
doctor," says Carole Saindon of Health Canada.
"The College of Physicians and
Surgeons recommends that complaints not be discussed
publicly. Health Canada respects this recommendation."
Unsurprisingly, the College won't
comment on Dr O'Connor's case, nor will the Alberta
The Athabasca oilsands (formerly called the tar sands)
were long thought impractical to exploit. But high oil
prices and technological innovations have made the area
feasible to develop and all of a sudden the province's
accessible oil reserves rival Saudi Arabia's. But the
catch is that to get oil from the bitumen (natural tar)
enormous amounts of toxic waste water are created. And
this raises concerns that profits from this development
come at the expense of aboriginal lives.
"We need to know if there are excessive
toxins in these resins and we need to see if people
are dying from rare cancer or some devastating immune
disorders that someone is collecting some samples
on these people to see what is the concentration of
toxins," explained Dr Sauvé to Fort McMurray Today.
There have been some studies looking
at the arsenic levels found in the region's fauna
but findings were contradictory. A recent study by Suncor,
an oil company, found that a proposed development would
lead to arsenic levels in moose meat a local
staple 453 times the acceptable limit. The province
and Imperial Oil dismissed the study saying their own
data said the levels were much lower. Imperial Oil spokesperson
Kim Fox stated back in November that her company's study
estimated arsenic levels were 15 times lower than the
Suncor numbers. "The people who actually conduct these
studies tend to be very, very conservative in their
methodologies. Even with these conservative approaches,
what we've found is that oilsands do not contribute
to increase in arsenic in the area."
& OLD LIES?
Locals are not convinced. "Those big shots running our
government they don't give a darn who dies, they're
not concerned about us," said one Fort Chipewyan elder
in a CBC radio interview. "I've fished since I was 13
in Lake Athabasca. I've seen fish in the last five or
six years with great lumps on them, humpbacks, crooked
tails, some of the pickerel rotting alive I've
never seen that before in all the years I commercial
fished. What are they putting into the water?"
Such cynicism towards the provincial
government is commonplace among First Nations communities
living near the oilsands developments. On March 6, the
Mikisew Cree in Fort Chipewyan pulled out of the Cumulative
Environmental Management Association (CEMA), dismissing
the watchdog institution as a crock. "CEMA is a parking
lot where everything, all the major issues, are placed.
Meanwhile approvals [for new oilsands projects] are
given," Mikisew spokesperson Sherman Sheh told the CBC.
Indeed, CEMA was initially given five years to release
an assessment on how much oil development the province
could sustain without permanently wrecking the environment.
It's already been seven years and CEMA hasn't released
its report, all the while oilsands development has been
continuing apace. The Athabaska Cree have also given
up on CEMA.