'Comprehensive' review of Fort Chipewyan cancer rates announced

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.

Alberta community located near oilsands developments

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.  

Fort Chipewyan timeline

1999: Government study recommends closer monitoring of human health in the area, specifically non-communicable diseases such as cancers.

2003: Dr. Michel Sauve, a Fort McMurray internal medicine specialist, tells mine application hearings of unusual disease rates in nearby First Nations communities. Alberta's Energy and Utilities Board recommends a government-led, industry-funded health study be conducted. Recommendation is not followed.   

March 2006: Dr. John O'Connor agrees to talk with CBC Radio about his concerns over cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, noting specifically bile duct cancer.

April 2006: Alberta Health and Health Canada promise to look into the concerns, meet with various parties, including residents of Fort Chipewyan, to plot out a health study.

July 2006: Alberta Health releases its analysis at a hearing for Suncor's application to expand development. It shows high cancer rates, but the numbers are lower than O'Connor's. The study is criticized for being rushed and incomplete.

October 2006: Oilsands company Suncor conducts an environmental assessment and finds that moose meat and other food sources around the community have 453 times the acceptable levels of arsenic. Community demands study, which Alberta Health says it will do.

February 2007: Three doctors from Health Canada's Alberta office file a complaint against O'Connor with the College of Physicians, alleging he is causing undue alarm in the community.

March 2007: Arsenic study released by Alberta Health, finding that levels are between 17 and 33 times the acceptable levels, which is no higher than in the Yukon. Alberta Medical Association puts out statement in reaction to O'Connor’s situation. Says doctors have a right to speak out on issues of public concern.

November 2007: Results are released from independent study commissioned by Fort Chipewyan's First Nations into the water quality of the Athabasca River. It shows high levels of carcinogens and toxic substances in fish, water and sediment downstream from Alberta's huge oilsands projects. Province dismisses findings as misleading and not accurate.

May 2008: Alberta Government and Health Canada launch new investigation into cancer complaints, which will be conducted with community participation. Results are slated to be released in the fall.

Source: Erik Denison, CBC News

"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.