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Report: Tar Sands Contaminate First Nations' Foods, Give Residents Cancer

A new report out Monday pushes back at claims that tar sands have no marked effect on community health and cancer rates

The Suncor tar sands operations in northern Alberta (Credit: Rocky Kistner)

The development of Alberta oil sands is contaminating area wildlife, and as a result degrading the health of indigenous people in Canada's First Nations, including by contributing to higher cancer rates, according to a report released Monday by the University of Manitoba’s Environmental Conservation Lab.

Titled Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta, the report found that “substantial employment opportunities are generated by the oil sands. Yet, this development, as well as upstream hydro projects, compromises the integrity of the environment and wildlife, which, in turn, adversely affects human health and well-being.”

“Many of the results, as they relate to human health, are alarming and should function as a wakeup call to industry, government, and communities alike,” said Dr. Stéphane McLachlan, who headed the team that prepared the report.

Based on the work of residents of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation and scientists from the University of Manitoba, the report finds that wild-caught foods such as muskrat, duck, moose, and beaver are polluted by chemicals like arsenic and mercury at higher than normal rates, and First Nations are changing their dietary customs over fears of secondary contamination.

"These communities are facing a double–bind," said McLachlan. "On one hand, industry, notably the Oil Sands, cause a decline in the health of the environment and ultimately of community members. On the other hand, the existing health care infrastructure is unable to address these declines in human health. The communities are caught in the middle, and the impacts are clear and worrisome."

While a provincial government study found that an aboriginal community downstream from the oil sands does not have higher overall cancer rates, Eriel Deranger, the communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says that “the study maps out pretty clearly a correlation between the consumption of traditional foods and increases in the likelihood of cancer."

Alberta’s chief medical officer, Dr. James Talbot, said in April that there were clusters of bile duct and cervical cancer in the region and that the frequency of lung cancer nearly meets the definition for a cluster as well.

The video below is a preview for the documentary One River, Many Revelations, which is set to be released in October and looks at the health effects from oil sands development in Fort Chipewyan.


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