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The Other Oil Disaster: Cancer and Canada's Tar Sands

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Today I was privileged to be an invited guest of the community of Fort Chipewyan, Canada. I can't blame you if you've never heard of "Ft. Chip" - after all, there are only 1000 residents, and it's only accessible by plane or boat. But you should hear about it, because what happens there will affect all of us.

The town has been suffering for more than ten years from surprisingly high rates of cancer. A local doctor sounded the alarm, and eventually the government did an investigation. The government's press release at the time the cancer study was released made it sound like there was no problem: "A study of the cancer incidence in Fort Chipewyan finds levels of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma are not higher than expected."

The results of the cancer study were never presented to the community, and the government claimed there was no problem. That's where I came in. One of my colleagues asked me to peer review the Alberta Health Services cancer investigation. To my surprise, the actual report did not align with the headlines:

  • Overall, the report found a 30% increase in cancers in Ft. Chip compared with expected over the last 12 years;
  • Leukemias and lymphomas were increased by 3-fold;
  • Bile duct cancers were increased by 7-fold;
  • Other cancers, such as soft tissue sarcomas, and lung cancers in women, were also elevated.

I'm not sure who wrote the press release for the government, but it sure weren't the scientists who actually did the investigation.

It wasn't just the elevated cancer rates that got my attention, however. It was also the types of cancers seen. Leukemias and lymphomas have been linked in the scientific literature to petroleum products, including VOCs (volatile components of petroleum), dioxin-like chemicals, and other hydrocarbons. Biliary cancers have been linked to petroleum and to PAHs (chemicals in tar and soot). Soft tissue sarcomas are very rare and lethal cancers that have also been linked to dioxin-like chemicals and hydrocarbons. It's an interesting pattern -- almost all of the cancer types that were elevated have been linked scientifically to chemicals in oil or tar.

It's especially interesting because little Ft. Chip is located downstream from the largest tar sands mining and oil production operation in the world. Other scientists who also presented their findings to the community today revealed significant increases in toxic metals, PAHs, and related chemicals in the water and sediments of the river downstream from the tar sands.

About 200 community members filled the hall where the scientists and physicians presented their findings. Then the community members spoke. Elders from the Mikisew Cree Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation decried the lack of action by the government and industry. Other community members talked about their own cancer diagnoses, or about the problems they were seeing in the fish, ducks, and wildlife they hunt for food. One man brought a deformed fish to the researchers, asking that it be tested for contaminants. The meeting was long, intense, and important. These people are concerned about their livelihood, and their lives. They are also concerned about the state of their rivers, the lake, and the wildlife.

Afterward, as I flew back to Edmonton on the tiny plane, I looked down on miles of pristine boreal forest dotted with lakes and entwined by rivers. Then the tar sands operations came into view - vast scars on the land, massive sulfur piles, smokestacks creating huge plumes into the sky, and enormous tailings ponds next to the river glimmering with an oily sheen; tailings ponds that are almost certainly leaching contaminants into the Athabasca River, which carries them down toward Ft. Chip.

As I prepare to head down to the Gulf Coast, I wonder what will happen here in Canada. Will the newfound distaste for offshore oil drilling be a boon to the tar sands, thereby worsening the ecological and health situation up here? Or will the public realize that petroleum comes with a price that is too high to pay, and move toward a safer energy future?

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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