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article imageCollege of Physicians & Surgeons clears oil sands whistle blower

By Stephanie Dearing     Nov 14, 2009 in Health
Was he a hero, a villain or just a well-meaning but misguided doctor who simply wanted the community his patients lived in to be safe and healthy?
Whatever you want to call Dr. John O'Connor, his efforts were instrumental in getting the Province of Alberta to look at the incidence of cancer in a small remote community called Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta. But while working to get the province to pay attention to the problems he saw at Fort Chipewyan, three doctors working for Health Canada lodged complaints against Dr. O'Connor in 2007. After a two-year investigation into the four complaints, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (CPSA) cleared Dr. O'Connor of the charges of wrong-doing levelled against him stating "... neither the complainants nor the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Alberta wishes to suggest that Dr. O'Connor acted improperly when he raised concerns about the incidence of cancer in Fort Chipewyan based on his observations." The report, which was leaked, was only supposed to be released to a select few people because "... consensus as to the content of a public statement could not be reached by the involved parties. Accordingly, the CPSA is completing its investigation report and sharing it only with those whom it has a statutory obligation to provide this information."
The College's 13 page report took great pains, however, to demonstrate that Dr. O'Connor was in the wrong because he "... failed to inform public health officials and the Alberta Cancer Board of the identities of and clinical circumstances of patients whom he'd diagnosed with various types of cancer in a timely manner; ... did not respond to multiple requests for information after he had made public his concerns about the incidence of cancer in the community of Fort Chipewyan; [and] ... made a number of inaccurate or untruthful claims with respect to the number of patients with confirmed cancers and the ages of patients dying from cancer."
Arial view of Fort Chipewyan Alberta
Arial view of Fort Chipewyan, Northern Alberta.
Mark S. Elliott
But in spite of those findings, the College has chosen to not reprimand or punish Dr. O'Connor in any way, in essence rendering its findings null and void. So what is the real story?
This story is a classic David vs. Goliath, and members of the public may never know the full truth. The tale pits Dr. O'Connor, the community of Fort Chipewyan and their supporters against provincial and federal governments, giant resource-based corporations and their advocates.
Dr. O'Connor served as a general physician at Fort Chipewyan from 2000 to early 2007. During those years, he noted a high incidence of cancer and other diseases in the small population of approximately 1,200. Beginning in 2003, Dr. O'Connor started informing various health agencies of his concerns about what appeared to be a higher-than-normal rate of cancer in the community. Dr. O'Connor was largely ignored until his continued lobbying resulted in a review of cancer cases in 2006. That review, however, was ultimately rejected by Dr. O'Connor and the community of Fort Chipewyan. The hastily compiled report was essentially a tally of known cancer cases in Alberta, with a comparison between communities. The report, which was released to the public at a hearing for SunCor, concluded that the rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan was no higher than anywhere else.
Dr. O'Connor redoubled his efforts for an investigation into Fort Chipewyan's cancer rates, and got one; possibly because of the extensive media attention Dr. O'Connor was generating. Dr. O'Connor was not shy about criticizing Alberta's initial response to the issues he was raising, but the story gained global attention after doctors from Health Canada laid their complaints with the CPSA..
Alberta Cancer Board's report on the study of cancer rates at Fort Chipewyan got underway in 2007. The findings, released in February 2009, confirmed Dr. O'Connor's assertions that there was a higher rate of cancer at Fort Chipewyan than would be normally expected.
The province studied cancer at Fort Chipewyan from 1995 to 2006, and Alberta's Cancer Board attributed the study largely to Dr. O'Connor, saying "In 2006, Dr. John O’Connor, a physician working in Fort Chipewyan, reported a high number of cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare form of bile duct cancer, as well as high rates of other cancers. Local residents echoed his concerns, attributing cancers in their community to environmental contamination from a range of industrial development including the oil sands 250 kilometres upstream, uranium mining and pulp mills."
The study found "The cancer rate overall (51 cancers in 47 individuals) was higher than expected (39). Higher than expected numbers of cancers of the blood and lymphatic system, biliary tract cancers as a group, and soft tissue cancers were found." The report went on to conclude that the higher incidence of cancer might be an anomaly, stating "These findings were based on a small number of cases and could be due to chance, increased detection or increased risk in the community." Highlighting the need for greater study, the report states "First Nations Albertans have a significantly lower rate than non-First Nations Albertans for all cancer, leukemia and breast cancer. The rate for cholangiocarcinoma in First Nations Albertans, however, is significantly higher than that in non-First Nations."
Greenpeace activists chained to a dump truck
Some of the Greenpeace activists who chained themselves to a three-story high dump truck in Northern Alberta, in a bid to have North American leaders stop tar sands development.
Greenpeace Canada
The problem was that Dr. O'Connor had been openly critical of the environmental contamination caused by upstream resource extraction activities, theorizing that this might be the source of cancer in Fort Chipewyan. Furthermore, Dr. O'Connor had embarrassed Alberta after his lobbying resulted in the intense media attention focused on Fort Chipewyan.
In 2006, SunCor, an oil sand operation that is situated upstream from Fort Chipewyan, admitted publicly that the company does release processing water into the Athabasca River. SunCor also confirmed that it releases hydrocarbon and "other chemicals" with that processing water. Some of those chemicals, according to records filed with the Government of Canada include carcinogens such as the 19 tonnes of benzene reported released in 2007. SunCor also releases toxic chemicals from its Fort McMurray operations in the waste water, such as18 kilograms of arsenic released in 2007. These two chemicals released are only part of a list of chemical releases in 2007.
SunCor, it should be noted, is not the only resource-based extraction operation north of Fort Chipewyan. There are uranium mining operations as well as other oil sands companies such as Syncrude, Shell, BP Canada Chemical, Imperial Oil and other companies. Alberta is rich with natural resources.
Of course, the oil sands industry does not want to make people sick. The industry wants to make profits. This story, however, serves to illustrate that the health of Canadians need to be considered and protected. To have a community downstream from several major resource extraction operations, which do release carcinogens and toxic chemicals in water should automatically compel Canadian health officials to put human interests before corporate interests. And when a downstream community is experiencing high rates of cancer, the onus should be on the corporations to prove their operations are not causing illness instead of the people needing to prove that they are being made ill by such operations.
More about Oil sands whistle blower, Fort chipewyan, OConnor, Tar sands, Fort chipewyan cancer rates
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