Monday, July 28, 2014
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Alberta doctor tells U.S.: Canada is ‘lying’ about tar sands’ health effects

American Senators told that oil sands are linked to a huge spike in cancer, despite Canadian government claims

Mychaylo Prystupa

Vancouver Observer

A northern Alberta doctor warned U.S. Senators on what he says have been the devastating health impacts of the tar sands on families – effects, he says, that have been willfully “ignored” by the Canadian and Alberta governments.

“I appeal to you to keep up the pressure – this is an ongoing tragedy. A total disgrace,” said Dr. John O’Connor, Wednesday in Washington, D.C.

He sighted statistics for rare cancers – of the bile duct for example – that have shot up 400 times for what is considered normal for a tiny community, such as Fort Chipewyan – which is downstream, to the north of the oil sands.

“These are published, peer-reviewed studies that indicate that the government of Alberta and Canada have been lying, misrepresenting the impact of industry on the environment,” said O’Connor.

The Alberta government has long denied cancer links with the province's multi-billion-dollar crown energy jewel. It states on its website that there is "insufficient evidence to link the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan to oil sands operations" and rates of cancer are "within the expected range."

O'Connor finds that hard to believe.

“All of the scientific studies that have accumulated, it’s almost like they don’t exist,” he said.

A new study for example, shows Leukaemia and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma have spiked in the last 10 years -- especially among men who live downwind of pollution plumes from the oil, gas and tar sands facilities east of Edmonton.

The family physician was invited to brief two U.S. Senators who are against the proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline – to carry bitumen from Alberta to Texas.

California Senator Barbara Boxer said the Alberta doctor is an important “witness” as to why the Keystone pipeline should be turned down, based on health concerns alone.

O'Connor said he came "with absolutely no political agenda" and simply as an “advocate for patients” because he feels his repeated calls for Canadian authorities to take precautionary health actions have been ignored.

“In my experience, when pressure is exerted outside Canada, the government reacts.”

O’Connor attends to mostly aboriginal patients between Fort McKay and Fort McMurray. He first noticed a rise in cancer in the area several years ago, but said governments have been slow to do anything about it.

Oil sands health issues gaining prominence

Oil sands healths issue took spotlight last fall when newly elected Fort Chipewyan councillor John Chadi took ill just 48 hours after being sworn in.

He was diagnosed with the same rare, incurable bile duct cancer, found in people living nearby. But unlike other Aboriginal cancer patients in Fort Chipewyan, Chadi is Lebanese.

“How can this keep happening in a community this size?” his common-law wife told the Edmonton Journal. According to a government census, Fort Chipewyan only had a population of 847 in 2011.

Similarly, dozens of families in the Peace River region, in the province's Northwest, have complained of health effects from noxious oil sands fumes, and six families have abandoned their homes.

When one mother, Karla Labrecque, approached her ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie about her health woes from the oil fumes, he told her to "just move."

“He said… you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don't matter. Move," the mother told a recent Alberta energy regulator hearing under oath.

O'Connor said physicians are fearful of recriminations and repercussions, "if they dared to speak ‘health issues and tar sands’ in the same sentence.”

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