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Higher Cancer Rates and Tainted Local Foods Linked to Tar Sands Operations

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new study released by two Alberta First Nations communities in partnership with the University of Manitoba reports that certain carcinogens released in tar sands operations are being found in high levels in local wildlife. The study also reports a higher incidence of cancer among study participants, many of whom work in the tar sands industry, adding to evidence that these local communities suffer from higher rates of cancer. 

Suncor tar sands operations in northern Alberta, Canada. Photo credit: Rocky Kistner

The Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille said, "This report confirms what we have always suspected about the association between environmental contaminants from oil sands production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community… We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report."

The University of Manitoba study done in collaboration with the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations adds to growing body of scientific evidence that people living near tar sands operations are showing that serious health risks and problems. Projects like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which will help the ramp more tar sands production posing even greater health risks should be rejected by the U.S. government. And despite these documented dangers, the province of Alberta and the federal Canadian government have done too little to protect the local community’s health. Now is the time for more rigorous health monitoring and a follow up investigation into elevated cancer rates.

The reportEnvironmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations in Northern Alberta, was prepared by Dr. Stephane McLachlan of the University of Manitoba’s Environment Conservation Laboratory. Dr. McLachlan and his colleagues found elevated levels of the environmental contaminants arsenic, cadmium, mercury and selenium, as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the foods traditionally harvested by the First Nations in the region including moose, ducks and beavers. PAHs often present serious risks to human health—some are known to damage DNA, others are carcinogens and many impact human development. PAHs also typically bioaccumulate and remain present in the environment over long periods of time. The levels of PAHs found in the wildlife collected by local communities were higher than expected and occurred in higher concentrations than those found in similar studies conducted around the world that focused on contaminants in food.

The study evaluated wildlife harvested by community members by examining tissue samples from moose, ducks, muskrats and beavers. According to the study, the wildlife had high concentrations of arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium. The study noted that members of First Nations communities still widely consume these “country foods” including moose and ducks, although the study noted that community members have been reducing their consumption of these foods due to pollution concerns and a general transition away from the traditional lifestyle. 

Researchers also interviewed local community members from Fort Chipewyan where participants voiced their concerns of a sharp decline in health and an alarming increase in cancers. Notably, many of those participants reporting cancer worked in the tar sands industry. A high incidence of cancer in the small community of Fort Chipewyan, which sits directly downstream of major tar sands development, has already been confirmed. 

A 2009 study, commissioned by the governments of Alberta and Canada, noted a diagnosed cancer rate from 1995 to 2006 that was 30 percent higher than what would typically be expected for that period of time. Further, certain types of cancers—biliary tract cancers, blood and lymphatic cancers, lung cancers in women, and soft tissue cancers—were all occurring at higher rates and expected. Additional scientific studies conducted around the world have linked elevated levels of these specific cancers to exposure to certain constituents in petroleum products and the chemicals produced in petroleum manufacturing. A more recent statistical review from the Alberta government still found higher rates of cancers than would be expected in a small community.

Alberta’s Edmonton Journal agrees that First Nations are owed an independent study evaluating the higher rates of cancer. “Albertans have been promised ongoing, world-class environmental monitoring in the oilsands region. That same long-term commitment needs to be made to monitoring the health of residents within that region, too.”

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The University of Manitoba report adds to the growing mound of evidence that people who live near tar sands operations in Canada face health risks from additional air and water pollution. Natural Resources Defense Council has published a fact sheet containing the latest scientific information about the health threat from tar sands development, some of which is highlighted below:

  • Due to expanded tar sands activity, scientists are noting an increased presence of pollutants in the ambient air near Fort McMurray (the epicenter of tar sands development) and to the south near upgrading facilities just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.
  • A 2009 study published by the National Academy of Sciences showed that the snow and water in an area extending outward 30 miles from upgrading facilities at Fort McMurray contained high concentrations of pollutants associated with fossil fuels, known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • A follow up study in 2014, published by the National Academy of Sciences, modeled the PAH levels measured in the tar sands region and found that environmental impact studies conducted by the tar sands industry in support of further development have systematically underestimated PAH emission levels and thus did not adequately account for human health risks.
  • A November 2013 issue of the journal Atmospheric Environment noted the presence of elevated levels of numerous hazardous air pollutants near major upgrading facilities just north of Edmonton. The study also noted elevated rates of leukemia and other cancers of the lymph and blood-forming systems in areas surrounding upgrading and petrochemical manufacturing facilities just north of Edmonton. Further, this study also noted that experts have found similar elevated risks in other populations living downwind of industrial facilities with similar emissions, which have also been linked to increased rates of leukemia and childhood lymphohematopoietic cancers.
  • In the remote community of Peace River, citizens have complained about increased air pollutants and noxious odors from excavating tar sands including complaints of nausea, headaches, skin rashes, memory loss, joint pain, exhaustion, and respiratory problems, and have forced several families to leave the area. Alberta’s Energy Regulator has recently confirmed that these problems are linked to emissions from nearby tar sands operations.
  • According to a 2012 study published by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers confirmed through lake sediment sampling and modeling that the presence of elevated levels of toxic PAHs can be traced to the major expansion of tar sands production that began in the 1980s. Some water bodies within the Athabasca watershed now exceed current Canadian standards for pollutants in sediment for seven PAHs, including benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, genetic damage, reproductive impacts including birth defects and organ damage.
  • Scientists analyzing lake sediments and snow samples have found an exponential increase in methylmercury levels within 30 miles of tar sands upgraders now being found in Alberta’s waterways and landscape. Methylmercury is a potent neurotoxin that causes developmental and behavioral problems, including lower IQ in children, as well as cardiovascular effects in adults.
  • Tailings ponds which collect toxic wastewater from tar sands mining operations contain multiple toxic chemicals including arsenic, benzene, lead, mercury, naphthenic acid and ammonia. A 2008 study by Environmental Defence Canada, based on industry data, found that as much as 2.9 million gallons of water leaks from tar sands tailings ponds into the environment every day.
  • Another study, published by the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, shows that extreme concentrations of PAHs present in tailings may lead to the evaporation of those PAHs into the ambient air. Further, the releases of PAHs into the ambient air from tar sands upgrading facilities discussed above are finding their way into the Athabasca River and its numerous tributaries.

First Nations convened a Healing Walk last month to draw attention to the destructive tar sands operations. Photo credit:
Healing Walk

The local communities involved in the report said that continued expansion of tar sands development would only worsen the impacts they currently face. The report contains a series of recommendations to reduce the impacts of heavy metals and PAHs from tar sands operations and to increase meaningful involvement by these communities in future research. In particular, the communities have asked for a long-term baseline health study and to better document the relationship between cancer and employment in the tar sands industry.

"It’s frustrating to be constantly filling the gaps in research and studies that should have already been done,” ACFN Chief Allan Adam said. “This demonstrates the lack of respect by industry and government to effecting address the First Nations concerns about impacts our Treaty rights and the increases in rare illnesses in our community. We need further independent studies done by internationally credible institutions like the World Health Organization.”

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