A study conducted by First Nations groups and scientists from the University of Manitoba released Monday suggests the Alberta oilsands are in part to blame for some health concerns in the downstream community of Fort Chipewyan and higher levels of heavy metals in wildlife. 

The study is based on the work of residents of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nations and scientists from the University of Manitoba, who measured the extent of heavy metals and other contaminants in country food harvested by indigenous people in the region.

Fort Chipewyan map

Fort Chipewyan is located downstream of the Alberta oilsands. (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers)

Funding for the study was provided by the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, as well as the National First Nations Environmental Contaminants program.

The study said it relied on both "Western science" and traditional knowledge gathered from interviews with elders and harvesters in the community.

At a news conference in Edmonton on Monday, Chief Steve Courtoreille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the report backs up their belief that contaminants from the oilsands are making their people sick. 

"If this river here was the Athabasca River that was coming down from Fort McMurray," Courtereille said, motioning towards Edmonton's North Saskatchewan River,"I tell you, there'd be an uproar here." 

The report says that oilsands development “compromises the integrity of the environment and wildlife, which in turn adversely affects human health and wellbeing.”

According to the study, all of the heavy metals that were tested for in wild food — arsenic, cadmium, methyl mercury and selenium — were present to some degree in the samples. Some, the study said, occurred in concentrations of concern for human safety.

“Generally speaking, concentrations of arsenic, cadmium and mercury were highest in the kidneys and livers of animals, especially ducks,” the study reads. 

The study suggested that there are widespread declines in health in the community. It also said that of 94 participants, 20 people had suffered from cancer.

"Cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the oilsands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish," said the report.

Study methodology questioned

The conclusions of the study are considered controversial, in part because of the study’s methodology, which some say is not scientifically rigorous enough to support the findings.

Warren Kindzierski, an associate professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, has questions about the model used by researchers, which could create subjective results. 

For example, people were asked about the "perceived role of smoking in affecting participant health," which could slant the study's results, Kindzierski said. 

“If the subjects do not believe it’s important, it’s given a low weight in the model and that introduces an element of bias.”

Kindzierski says he isn't sure the evidence in the report is strong. 

“I do not believe that this type of study offers the smoking gun evidence that some people might think," he said. 

In March, the government released its own study suggesting the Fort Chipewyan community doesn't have higher overall cancer rates.  The Alberta Health Services survey, which used data from 1992 to 2011, did find the prevalence of cervical and bile duct cancer in Fort Chipewyan was higher than expected. But that survey noted that most cervical cancer is caused by a virus. It also noted that U.S. research suggests that links between duct cancers and environmental toxins are not strong.

The chiefs and University of Manitoba researcher Stéphane McLachlan agreed more work needs to be done. 

But Adam said there was a reason why the First Nations didn't collaborate with the University of Alberta for the research. 

"The Alberta universities were, in our view, not credible enough because of the close ties that they have with the Alberta government in regards to some of the studies that they've done in the past," he said. 

Fort Chipewyan is a community of about 1,300 people on the northwest shore of Lake Athabasca and one of the most northern communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

With files from The Canadian Press