JANUARY 15, 2008
VOLUME 5 NO 1

PATIENTS & PRACTICE

Oilsands whistleblower MD cleared

Government charge of "undue alarm" from cancer warning remains


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," he says.

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 project. 

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.

GOV'T COMPLAINTS
Dr O'Connor's sleepless nights began in late 2006 when a letter from the registrar of the CPSA appeared in his mailbox. 

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community — serious charges which could've resulted in his license being temporarily suspended or possibly permanently withdrawn.* Since receiving the letter, he says, "there hasn't been a day when this hasn't affected me and my wife in some way."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.

MOUNTING EVIDENCE
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 residents.

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.

DISCOURAGING DISSENT
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," he says.

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.

ONGOING INQUIRY
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."

This article has been corrected. Click here for details

 

 

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