The health impacts of the oil sands are grave and range from on-site worker safety concerns to increased rates of cancers in communities downstream from tar sands developments.
A study conducted by Dr. Kevin Timoney in 2007 revealed high levels dangerous toxins in the Athabasca river in areas downstream from tar sands developments. The study, commissioned by the local health authority of Fort Chipewyan revealed high levels of arsenic, aluminum, chromium, cobalt, copper, iron, led, phosphorous, selenium, titanium, and phenols in the water. It found high levels of arsenic, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and resin acids in the sediment, as well as high levels of mercury in tested fish. Of these substances, the three contaminants of most concern for human health are arsenic, PAH’s and mercury. While PAH’s and their carcinogenic levels vary, they are all considered toxic and linked to cancer, vascular damage, kidney damage, liver and skin damage. Arsenic is a potent carcinogen that is also known to have a ’synergistic’ effect in contributing to cancer when combined with other elements — for example, combining exposure to both arsenic and PAH’s can increase the risk of cancer by 8 to 18 fold. Threats from high levels of mercury include nerve damage, cognitive impairment, kidney failure, respiratory failure and death.
Native communities, whose diets include large amounts of fish, are particularly at risk. Mercury exposure through consuming fish is linked with impaired neurological development in fetuses, infants and children. Studies have shown that children exposed to mercury in the womb often show impacts on cognitive thinking, memory, language, attention, and fine motor skills. Mercury exposure during pregnancy is also linked to severe birth defects. In adults, effects such as impaired peripheral vision, sensory damage, speech impairment, hearing loss and muscle weakness have been observed. In addition, PAH’s are toxic to embryonic fish at concentrations as low as 1 part per billion. A blind RAMP study has found mean concentrations of PAHs in sediments to be rising from 1ppm(million) in 2001 to 1.4 in 2005 as far downstream from Tar Sands developments as the Athabasca River delta. So not only are people impacted by consuming mercury in the fish, the toxins threaten to diminish the fish populations and people, particularly in native communities depend upon for their survival.
Industry claims that substances including PAH’s, mercury and arsenic were present in the water and sediment previous to tar sands development. However, Dr. Timoney’s study comparing 1970 levels to those found in the 1990s uncovered that the mercury level is as much as 98% higher in parts of the Athabasca river; dissolved arsenic levels are 46% higher, and alkylated PAH levels are 72% above historical measures in some areas. Dr. Timoney and many others including the federal parliament’s Standing Committee on Natural Resources have called for further better monitoring and further research to determine the true impact of these contaminants on the population and environment.
In 2005 Dr. John O’Connor spoke out publicly about the unusually high levels of cancer he was witnessing in the local community of Fort Chipewyan. He reported clusters of colon cancer, prostate, and lung cancers, as well as white blood related issues including lyphoma and leukemia, and 3 cases of cholangiacarcinoma in a population of 1,200. As he explained “we should be seeing 1 in 100,000 according to the statistics”. He concluded “When you realize what the community is exposed to…my gut feeling is that there cannot, cannot be a disconnection, there has to be some connection between what’s happening here and industry”. Dr. O’connor was summarily silenced by Health Canada and reprimanded by the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Alberta for causing “undue alarm”, a charge he was cleared of in December of 2007. While industry has bucked the claim that cancer levels are linked to oil sands development, even a study conducted in 2006 by the Alberta government noted that cancer rates in the community were 29% above the provincial average. A report comissioned by Suncor placed the lifetime cancer risk due to arsenic exposure to be 450 per 100,000 - this is compared to the national accepted public health standard of 1 per 100,000.
Since no comprehensive studies have been conducted on the combined effects of tar sands and other industry pollution on the health of the Athabasca waterway, one can only assume about possible health impacts reaching further downstream.