'Comprehensive' review of Fort Chipewyan cancer rates announced
Alberta community located near oilsands developments
Last Updated: Thursday, May 22, 2008 | 3:55 PM ET
After years of complaints of high rates of cancers and other illnesses from a community near Alberta's oilsands developments, the provincial and federal governments have decided to launch a thorough review.
"It happened actually because the community had lingering concerns, they continue to have concerns and because all partners wanted to respond to those concerns," said Lee Elliot, who is with the Alberta Cancer Board.
The board will lead the "comprehensive" study with Health Canada into the high incidences of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers in Fort Chipewyan, a remote community about 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
The results should be released in the fall, Elliot said.
Roxanne Marcel, the Chief of Mikisew Cree, told CBC News there have already been six deaths from cancer in the community in 2008.
Elders in the community of roughly 1,200 say people started getting sick after major petroleum refineries started production near their homes on the southwestern tip of Lake Athabasca.
Elliot said the review will be completed over the summer and researchers will consult with community members.
"It does involve chart reviews and making sure that our researcher works directly with the physician in the community and the other health providers, looking at the charts that were agreed on, these numbers of people and this diagnosis, all of that. Making sure all the details are correct when we do the analysis," she said.
"I think we all hope that by working together that we can build that trust and that we all agree that we are using the right process and when we do get the results of the study we can say, 'We are confident of these.'"
The announcement of the review follows the government earmarking $25-million in the recent budget to promote the oilsands as environmentally friendly.
Review follows years of feeling ignored
This government review follows years of the community feeling ignored.
A 1999 Energy and Utilities Board study on water in the region, which called for more monitoring of pollution and illness in the area, received little response.
But in March 2006, the problems surfaced again after a study by local physician Dr. John O'Connor, who said he believed these rates to be disproportionately high. A followup report by Alberta Health found that while the numbers were high, they were not as steep as those stated by O'Connor and not high enough to cause concern.
O'Connor said the report was inadequate. It was completed over the course of a few weeks and researchers said they were missing some key data. O'Connor also noted that neither he nor any members of the community were involved in the analysis.
The doctor's report, and the fallout as Health Canada filed a formal complaint against him for allegedly causing undue alarm, garnered media attention from organizations around the world, including Al Jazeera and the New York Times.
Environmental groups have also used the community's high disease rates to fuel their arguments for halting oil development.
The federal and provincial governments said the fears were unfounded and there was no need for a study.
But now, two years later, officials have decided a thorough review is needed.
Local doctor welcomes announcement
Dr. Michel Sauve, an internal medicine specialist in nearby Fort McMurray, said a full review has been a long time coming.
"There is clearly a great deal of attention onto the oilsands and their effects both environmentally and socially and the government has to respond to those kinds of public concerns and I think this is part of the response and obligations to Albertans," said Sauve, the first doctor to voice concerns about the cancer rates.
"This is a good story for the Fort Chip people who are going to be able to get some answers, something they have been deserving for a long time and the government's been promising for a long time. We need to find out what's going on."
He said he is urging the government to go further in their review than analyzing cancer rates, encouraging officials to test residents' blood and tissue for environmental toxins.