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Oil Causes Cancer

November 16, 2014

It certainly seemed that way, that oil sands extraction caused cancer in the people who lived nearby.  The settlement of Fort Chipewyan is on Lake Athabasca, only about 200 km downstream from the oil sands operation at Fort McMurray.  About a thousand people live in Fort Chipewyan.  Fort McMurray, on the Athabasca river, is the site of oil sands open pit mines and oil production facilities.  About 60,000 people live there.  A doctor who looked after residents of Fort Chipewyan first noticed the problem.  There was an unusual number of cancer cases in the town.  Had he identified a cancer hotspot?

The government of Alberta decided to find out, in an epidemiological study.  They determimed that the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan was only slightly higher than in the rest of the province, and that the difference was not statistically significant.  It was certainly not a cancer hotspot.  They did identify three types of cancer that were somewhat above normal.  Two of these had known causes, causes that were clearly not related to the proximity of the oil sands development.  The third type had no known cause, meaning that it might also be unrelated.  There was certainly no clear link to the nearby oil sands operation.

The second study was done by the University of Manitoba.  It utilized a variety of methods, including heavy metal analysis.  They did find an association between eating country food and ill health, as well as one between elevated heavy metal levels and ill health.  Of course, associations don’t indicate that one thing cause another, but only that the two vary together.

I actually have some experience with heavy metals in the environment, specifically with lead, cadmium, and mercury.  With sufficiently sensitive methods of analysis, these are always present in samples.  That, by itself, means nothing.  Levels higher than ones deemed to be safe are a cause for concern, of course.  Even then, it’s difficult to determine the cause of elevated levels, and difficult to identify them as the cause of disease.  In the case of Fort Chipewyan, both studies have some validity, although they generally do not contradict each other.  My impression is that the Alberta government study has better scientific evidence.


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