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High Incidence of Serious Illness in Oil Sands Territory Worrying Local Medical Examiner

Satellite view of some of the oil sands developments, courtesy of the DOE and Google Maps.

CBC news reports that the Fort McMurray Medical Examiner, Dr. John O’Connor, is worried by a high number of illnesses, including leukemia, lymphomas, lupus, and autoimmune diseases, afflicting residents of Fort Chipewyan, a community of about 1,200 people living 300 kilometers north of Fort McMurray.

Alberta’s booming oil sands development region is also 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.

Dr. O’Connor would like an epidemiological investigation that would track the health of the community and analyze the possible etiologies of the diseases prior to approving even more developments in the oil sands area. According to the CBC, the doctor is in negotiations with Health Canada to start those studies.

O’Connor says he is diagnosing unusually high numbers of immune system diseases affecting the thyroid and less serious ones such as rheumatoid 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.

The oil sands territory, with bitumen reserves that theoretically exceed those of Saudi Arabian crude, is experiencing a massive rush of development. In one of the most recent developments, Chevron Corporation acquired five new oil sands leases in the Athabasca region of northern Alberta, spanning more than 180,000 acres and possessing an estimated 7.5 billion barrels of oil in place. The company hopes to be producing 100,000 barrels of oil a day within 10 years from the project. (Earlier post.)

(A hat-tip to Harvey!)



all those fumes... it'll kill ya.

Big Shocker

Now is that shocking? I'm like so totally amazed that there would be health affects associated with oil sands...NOT! These environmental rapists need to get what they got coming to them. The carnage must end! I'm either smelling mercury vapor from my local coal plant or that's the smell of a big law suit.


No doubt the industry will deny they have nothing to do with this.

tom deplume

A couple things come to mind. First is the town involved is 200 miles from the oil sand pits. The most likely vector would be pollution of the river. Secondly in Canada nobody needs to sue someone for medical expenses. The lack of universal health care is a boon for American lawyers and a burden for business.


Think the town is upstream from the oil sand projects.

Harvey D

tom are right, we can suffer from cancer creating activitities and die free of charge in Canada. However, the total health care cost is increasing so fast that it will require more than 50% of all the provincial and federal government budgets very soon. Meanwhile, the waiting lists are getting longer every month because the facilities are overloaded and under budgeted. The tar sands extraction may make matter worst for a wide area. Very dirty business because of the multiple barrel negative effet from (extraction-upgrading-transporting-burning etc). Water-wind-sun power sources, which are plentiful in Canada, would be much cleaner and healtier for all of us. Acquired Oil Addiction will be costly in the long run and no money may be able to fix all the damages. What people will do for short term gains..............


No, it's downriver. Rivers in that area of the globe flow northeast, emptying into Lake Athabasca, and then into the Arctic Ocean. The oil sands developments sit upstream of the community and the lake.

From Alberta Environment:

The Athabasca River originates in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta. The river flows northeast through the province, past the urban centres of Jasper, Hinton, Whitecourt, Athabasca and Fort McMurray prior to emptying into Lake Athabasca. Flows from the basin eventually make their way to the Arctic Ocean.

The Peace River begins in the mountains of British Columbia, and flows to Alberta are influenced by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, located on the Peace River in British Columbia. The river flows northeast across the province, through the town of Peace River and empties into the Slave River.


If the rivers flow North/NorthEast and the town is south of the tar sands...then the town is upstream from the tar sands. This means the tar sands could not be effecting the town's drinking water unless that water comes from Lake Athabasca to the north of them. Additionaly, any contaminants in the river should be easy to find. Test the water and perform the environmental studies, but let's find out what is happening before pointing the finger. Due to the great distance, around 322 kilometers(200 miles), between the tar sands and the town, if it is not in the probably is not related to the tar sands. Not to mention, the tar sands have been actively mined beginning since before the 1980's. That is greater than 25 years...


Geographic clarification.
The oil sands are north of Ft McMurray.
The town is north of the oil sands.

Rafael Seidl

Here's a few links for those who are not familiar with oil and tar sand extraction technology.

The raw product is not volatile, but the refiner(y)(ies) associated with these mines does produce compounds that could be transported downwind. In addition, the technology requires large amounts of water; this is surely recycled but there is still likely to be some contamination of the river (either directly or via the ground water). Mining is never a particularly clean business, though it has greatly improved over the years.

Ray Buccino

it might have more to do with all the uranium mining in the region than with the oil sands.


Cancer rates are almost one in two in Canada right now. So it would probably have to move to 100% to get the people off the couch. I think the whole country is full of gambles that are very willing to risk their health for a few bucks. Maybe because their building Caseno every week and lotto's on everything the culture has changed. I would like to think this but I suppose people were always greedy for a quick buck. A better study would be the workers at the plants. You can bet that study will never happen with all the money coming out of there right now.


It seems that the cancer victims in this case were residents of a remote First Nations village, not the workers in the mines themselves, who tend to be more transient and less likely to sustain the long-term exposures likely to lead to the rare cancers seen here. Plus, such workers tend to scatter and move away from the arctic regions after the finish their contracts, making it more difficult to notice a cancer cluster among their ranks. The effects of twenty-five years of continuous exposure may just be coming to light.

The rivers in that region do flow northeast, meaning that they would carry any contaminants away from the relatively large town of Fort McMurray and towards the small town of Fort Chipewyan, where this apparant cancer cluster has been found.

If a statistical analysis suggests that there is indeed a cancer cluster, not only would the drinking water be a prime suspect, but so would the local plants and animals which serve as food sources. First Nations often rely on traditional sources of food -- local plants and animals -- that could easily serve as food-chain concentrators of dangerous trace substances. In more typical toxic exposure cases, food supply is not as strongly implicated, because in more mainstream North American communities most of the food comes from the major international processors and suppliers.

It is important to remember that if a lawsuit is filed, its purpose would not just be to recover medical costs (which might in this case flow to the government health agency which paid for the health care) or pay for other items of damage, such as lost earnings capacity or "pain and suffering." Rather, the prospect of a lawsuit will also serve to deter the major oil sands companies from polluting rivers without regard to the consequences, or at least prompt them to take remedial actions to clean up the river and avoid future harms. This "burden" is the sort of thing that throws the brakes on businesses that would otherwise earn their profits by injuring the rest of us.

Of course, at this point, the evidence is far more suggestive than conclusive. I would be very interested to know what further investigation turns up. It should be undertaken immediately, and we should be wary of any possible corporate interference with it.

Harvey D

Thank you NBK for your excellent observations. Long time exposure to polluted water and food is probably one of the main factor. We should certainly be wary of any pssible corporate (and provincial government) interference in any future investigation because they both have much to loose.


i love smelling crude oil

i find it soothing and very addictive.

i need to know if this is harmful

i am quite serious ....


An old processing plant (over 100 years old) was rediscovered near my home. What are my health risks?

Richard Hiner

Yes...airborne contaminates bio-accumulate in the flora and fauna. The moose the First Nations People in the area depend upon for their meat have 400 times the allowable limit for arsenic. Here in Ontario, we have mining companies telling the general population that First Nations People are "in the way of progress".

Isen wrote a very good play about this issue in the 19th century Norway. It is called AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. A small town doctor discovers the spa he helped found is poisoning the guests. To begin with, he is praised for his discover. The press and the inhabitants turn against him when they discover that improvements will eat into profits too greatly to make the spa viable any longer. The townspeople desert him and label him, "Enemy of the People". He is dismissed from his job. His daughter loses her job as a school teacher. People start to break the windows in his house. His first reaction is to leave and area where the people believe the majority is ALWAYS right. He stays and devotes himself to bring the citizens to a state wherein they feel free to explore more clear thinking.

Would someone please post Dr. John O'Connor's web address so I may encourage him in his stand against the ignorace and intolerance of this century?

Janice R. england

Perhaps there are long forgotten dumps (landfills) in Fort Chipewyan. Historically, mining pits were used as dumps. Most closed dumps contain carcinogenic chemicals. Has there been research of previous land-use of the cancer cluster area?
Janice R. England
People Investigating Toxic Sites
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Wiliams Cole

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