Alberta’s oil sands are one of the world’s biggest deposits of oil, but the cost of extracting that oil may be the health of the people living around them.
High levels of toxic chemicals and carcinogens have been found in the water, soil, and fish downstream of the oil sands. The local health authority of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta commissioned the study in response to locals’ claims that the oil extraction projects upstream were damaging the health of citizens.
Donna Cyprien, health director of the Nunee Health Authority, said: “For years the community has believed that there’s lots of cancer. When they drank from the water, there was an oily scum around the cup. We now know there is something wrong.”
Oil is extracted from the oil sands by heating the tar, known as bitumen. The process uses a vast amount of water, although this water is usually stored on the site.
The report was written by Dr. Kevin P. Timoney, an ecologist with Treeline Environmental Research. Timoney declared that the town’s water was safe to drink, but there were high levels of toxins including arsenic, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in local fish. Many people in the area have a diet high in fish.
Timoney admits that further studies are needed, an idea other scientists echo. There is fear, however, over the findings in the report. Many scientists were disturbed by the rise in polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons levels in sediment between 2001 and 2005.
“These are substantial increases over and above the natural levels,” said research scientist Dr. Jeffrey Short, who has previously worked on the Exxon Valdez spill. He added that the chemicals are “notorious carcinogens.”
The government did not respond to the report, saying it had not seen a copy. Howard May, a spokesman for the Alberta Department of Health and Wellness, said: “There is nothing really new in these allegations, we have been looking into them for some two years now.” He pointed out that the government has found “no higher incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan than the rest of the province, and we stand by that analysis unless and until we are provided with further evidence.”
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