High illness rate near oilsands worrisome, says Alberta health official
A medical examiner in Alberta wants to know why there are reports of serious illnesses, including a rare cancer, in a small First Nations community near the province's oilsands.
- INDEPTH: Alberta's oilsands
A high number of illnesses, including leukemia, lymphomas, lupus, and autoimmune diseases, have been diagnosed in Fort Chipewyan, a community of about 1,200 people living 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
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.
Syncrude and Suncor extract and process hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day in their oil sands projects near the community.
Further development is planned for the oilsands, which cover an area in northwestern Alberta that's larger than the state of Florida.
But Fort McMurray Medical Examiner Dr. John O'Connor says he'd like some answers before more developments are approved. O'Connor says he is diagnosing unusually high numbers of immune system diseases affecting the thyroid and less serious ones such as rhumatoid arthritis and skin rashes.
He has also treated five people in the community who died recently from a rare, almost always fatal cancer that should occur once in every 100,000 people.
"With my increasing lack of ability to explain why I'm seeing such numbers, it worries me and it does call for a health study to be initiated as soon as possible," says O'Connor.
He is in negotiations with Health Canada to start an epidemiological investigation that would track the health of the community.
Warren Simpson, a resident of Fort Chipewyan. says he hopes it happens soon before any more members of his small community die.
"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 says 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.