Thursday, March 5, 2009

Cancer Cluster near Oil Sands...

While perusing the National Geographic article posted previously, I found a story about a possible Cancer Cluster in Fort Chipewan which lies downstream from much of the oil sands projects. I wanted to investigate further, since Erin Brockovich is one of my fave movies (don't ask why, I'm a closet Julia Roberts fan lol)... I found THIS ARTICLE in the National Post, dated Feb 09, which seems to be the most recent.

To backtrack, the Nat Geographic article names a concerned doctor and talks about concerned residents of FC because of a possibly higher-than-normal rate of cancers there. I must have been in the twilight zone for a few years because I had no idea a documentary was made, let alone anything else. Anyway, I have read many studies over the years regarding the difficulties with pinpointing the reasons behind a cancer cluster, partly due to having clusters in areas that are not close to anything industrial such as the usual suspects - coal, uranium, nuclear power, oil, etc. - or having no reported clusters near other similar suspects. My first thought was that the petroleum there is so close to the surface, it's hard to know if that alone could be causing problems and it's occuring naturally, so what can you do? (hmmm I don't know, maybe remove it and clean the sand?).

In the Nat Post article I found interesting comments such as ""Certain cancers that Dr. O'Connor had claimed were epidemic in the town of 1,200 people were found well within, or even below, provincial averages; other kinds of cancers showed up more than elsewhere in the province; and while high rates of cancer in children are often considered the most obvious sign of environmental toxicity, Fort Chipewyan has not a single child or teenager sick with cancer.""

and ""The report could not conclude whether certain elevated illness rates were due to environmental toxicity (let alone whether that toxicity might be industrial or naturally occurring in a region teeming with uranium deposits and where petroleum literally bubbles from the earth), genetics, lifestyle, better detection, or, as likely as anything, random chance. "Our investigation really can't go any further in distinguishing these," Dr. Fields added. It may be that no study can.""

and ""... Dr. O'Connor's initial alarums over an alleged six reported cases of cholangiocarcinoma -- a rare bile duct cancer -- proved to be misdiagnoses, and the cancer well within the "expected range,""

and ""Between 1961 and 1990, the U. S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied 108 different areas reporting cancer clusters; Not a single one could be linked with environmental causes.""

It doesn't help to have so many people at odds. The article continually reports that cluster studies of the past have rarely(or never) shown any clear link between industry and cancer rates, and are even completely avoided now in many states because the huge cost always ends up with the same 'I don't know' ending. Meanwhile, Alberta Liberal Leader Swann ""believes that had similar health concerns shown up in a politically important and non-Native city such as Calgary, "we'd know all this by now, we would have had multi-million-dollar investments in research, we'd know where the ground water was affected, we'd know what the plant and animal life was hosting in terms of contaminants, we'd know what the air quality changes were from day to day.""" So Swann is calling the investigation by oncologists and epidemiologists racist. That's nice. Carl Phillips is an epidemiologist from the UofA and even he says ""So inevitable are the perils of cluster studies that the Alberta government might have been better to avoid investigating Fort Chipewyan entirely,"". Is he being racist? Is he just trying to keep himself in business by hoping more people show up with cancer? Or is he doing his job and telling people the truth? According to Alberta's Lib Leader, he is passing them off just because FC largely consists of Aboriginal people.

Will we ever know what is happening up there? Will we be able to trace that the cancers are hereditary due to it being a small population where many may be related down the line? Will we know if it is the actual natural area itself that is poisoning people since the oil and other toxins are not deep below the surface like everywhere else? Will we find out it is indeed directly because of the oil sands projects? There are so many variables, even the non-scientist-mind can see the problem with sorting through the factors and coming up with a plausible answer.

And is also leads me to question why the National Geographic, a magazine I respected and collected as a child with my dad, would leave out such important facts for their feature article (facts such as the main alarming cancer being misdiagnosed by the doc in the first place). One photo in the gallery shows a resident standing beside the grave of her sister, and specifically names the very bile-duct cancer the doctor misdiagnosed with some patients (see bolded section above).

The photo caption reads: In the small town of Fort Chipewyan, Emma Michael stands beside the grave of her sister who, like her mother and brother, recently died of cancer. Michael herself is a breast cancer survivor, and the family is among the victims in a cancer cluster that includes, among other forms of the disease, cholangiocarcinoma, a rare malignancy attacking the bile duct. About 1,200 people live in Fort Chipewyan, an isolated community more than a hundred miles downstream from Fort McMurray and its massive mining operations. For several years residents have wondered if pollution from upstream could be causing local health problems. John O'Connor, a physician in Fort Chipewyan for seven years, was among the first to report the high cancer rate. He says the government has not done enough to investigate. "How could such a small community in such a pristine place have such illnesses?" O'Connor asks. In late 2008 the provincial government completed a cancer study, but Fort Chipewyan community leaders rejected the results before they were made public, complaining the study was poorly done.

The misrepresentation of facts in that photo caption alone makes me take the entire article with a pinch of salt. Disappointed in NG to say the least.

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