Dr John O'Connor can now sleep
easier than he has in over a year. "My wife has just
poured me a glass of wine and I'm going to put my feet
up, relax and watch something mindless... like House,"
In mid-December, Dr O'Connor finally
got some good news. In a conference call with his lawyer
and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta
(CPSA), the CPSA announced he'd been cleared of three
of the four professional misconduct charges Alberta
Health and Wellness and Health Canada had brought against
him after he warned of a link between dangerously high
levels of carcinogens and rare forms of human cancers
in a community down-river of Alberta's oilsands mining
The fourth a charge that
he raised undue alarm in the community is still
pending but with three acquittals in hand, he now feels
positive about the prospects for that one, too.
Dr O'Connor's sleepless nights began in late 2006 when
a letter from the registrar of the CPSA appeared in
He had been accused by Health Canada
of engendering mistrust, blocking access to files, billing
irregularities, and raising undue alarm in the community
serious charges which could've resulted in his
license being temporarily suspended or possibly permanently
withdrawn.* Since receiving the letter,
he says, "there hasn't been a day when this hasn't affected
me and my wife in some way."
He felt so dogged by the complaints
that he soon found life in Alberta unbearable and in
September left his home of 14 years for the calmer shores
of Nova Scotia's Barrington Passage.
Dr O'Connor's situation has left
many physicians wondering if they too could be penalized
for speaking out on behalf of their patients and, if
so, whether tough whistleblower legislation for doctors
may be needed.
In 2003, Dr O'Connor first started regularly flying
from his home in Fort McMurray to see patients in the
northern Alberta town of Fort Chipewyan's small, largely
native population of 1,200. He was startled to find
a string of cases of cholangiocarcinoma, an uncommon
cancer of the bile duct.
Normally the disease affects one
in 100,000 people. Dr O'Connor saw six patients in a
row he suspected had cholangiocarcinoma and by the time
he'd sent three or four referrals to the local toxicologist's
office, they jokingly asked, "What are you doing to
those patients up there in Fort Chip, doctor?"
He went through the health histories
of the town's residents and found a striking number
of residents who had already had brushes with cancer.
He saw high incidence of colorectal cancer and, in the
last four or five years, an abnormally high number of
GI cancers. Dr O'Connor documented what he was seeing
and called for a thorough health study of Fort Chip's
After Dr O'Connor's concerns about
the oilsands-cancer link were widely publicized last
year, the provincial government moved to test the water
almost a decade after scientists first raised
warnings of the health dangers. The government held
a press conference to say everything was fine, but after
everyone left, says Dr O'Connor, officials told the
community there may be an issue with arsenic in the
water: levels were 17 to 33 times the upper limits in
some samples. When asked if it would be monitored officials
said no and when asked if it was safe to eat the food,
they said "we have no information to say it's unsafe."
Dr O'Connor's findings are supported
by a recent study of the water around Fort Chip. The
report, issued by Kevin Timoney, PhD, an Alberta ecologist
who has studied the Athabasca River for the past 14
years, suggests arsenic isn't the only issue. "The level
of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are significantly
high enough to raise the risk of cancer," he says.
Dr Timoney calls the government's complaints against
Dr O'Connor "completely unacceptable." "It's a clear
case of trying to silence someone who has concerns,"
The case has led many physicians
to fear for their freedom as public health advocates.
"If we allow this 'straitjacket' to be applied each
time a medical practitioner speaks out, we run the risk
of being silenced for our scientific opinion," speculated
Toronto's Dr Noel Kerin in a letter printed in these
pages last year.
Physicians who identify potential
public health problems need legal protection urges Dr
Michel Sauvé, Dr O'Connor's former Fort Chip
colleague. "Obviously, we need some whistleblower protection,
some laws that will banish these kinds of repressive
censorship," he told the CBC.
Dr O'Connor claims the remaining charge of creating
"undue alarm" is moot. "The community isn't panicked
because they've lived with these problems for so long,
people just shrug their shoulders."
He says this case is more important
than just what happens to him. "My wish is for the government
to see what I've documented and look at Fort Chip and
Dr Timoney's report, take responsibility for the bungling,
and just sit down and go through what's been happening,"
he says. "But I don't know if the community would trust
a government analysis at this point."
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