Northern Alberta's medical examiner has requested an investigation by Health Canada into the unusually high rate of cancer and immune diseases in Fort Chipewyan.
Dr. John O'Connor, a physician and medical examiner for the remote northern community, says the population of 1,200 has been disproportionately affected by a high number of both rare and common cancers.
"I'm having increasing difficulty explaining to myself and to my patients why," said O'Connor, noting the cancer rate in Fort Chipewyan exceeds that of many larger populations.
Elders in the community say they didn't see these kinds of diseases until the oil industry started production near their homes on the southwestern tip of Lake Athabasca.
O'Connor said he suspects oil and gas activity may play a role. He wants oil companies working in the region to help finance some research into the community's health problems.
Syncrude and Suncor extract and process hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day in their oil sands projects near the community.
There's a particular type of cancer that has been diagnosed in the community that normally affects one in 100,000 people. In Fort Chipewyan, five people have died from this particular cancer, said O'Connor.
The doctor said he's also observed an unusually high rate of thyroid problems and other immune-related diseases.
"The incident rates of the disease, and the diseases I'm particularly concerned about, are by my experience and in discussions with colleagues and their experience, much higher than I should be seeing in a population of 1,200 people," said O'Connor.
Warren Simpson, a resident of Fort Chipewyan. said he hopes officials can get to the bottom of the matter to curb the death toll.
"My dad, my sister, my aunt, a lot of my cousins have it, my friends' families ... a lot of them have died of cancer and some of them are dying now of cancer," he said.
Simpson successfully fought off cancer, but said he's scared it will come back.
With between 1.7 trillion and 2.5 trillion barrels, the oilsands reserves are considered second only to those in Saudi Arabia. The oilsands cover an area larger than the state of Florida.