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A New Study Confirms the Tar Sands Are Harming the Health of First Nations

A new study of health concerns among communities downstream from the Alberta tar sands has been released and the results confirm what residents have long been saying: tar sands development can be tied to a series of illnesses, including cancer, asthma...
July 11, 2014, 8:45pm

Community-based monitor training for Dr. Stephane McLachlan. All images via the author.
The most in-depth study of health concerns among communities downstream from the Alberta tar sands is out, and the results are damning.

The report largely confirms what residents of Fort Chipewyan, home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN), have long been saying: significant increases in illnesses in the communities, including cancer, asthma, diabetes, and mental illness, among others, can be clearly tied back to tar sands development 200 kilometres upstream along the Athabasca River.


The study was lead by Dr. Stéphane McLachlan of the University of Manitoba, and carried out in conjunction with the AFCN and MCFN. The study is the first of its kind in working directly with community members in framing the direction of the research. Carried out in two phases over the past three years, McLachlan said the results they found are clear.

“What we found was a decline in health, particularly in relation to cancer. Again, I would argue, the link to the oil sands is incontrovertible,” he told VICE.

For members of the ACFN and the MCFN, the findings are a vindication of what they've been saying for years.

“It's nothing overwhelming,” Chief Allan Adam said in a phone interview with VICE. “We've always been saying that there's something wrong. The Alberta government, with the federal government, kept denying the facts, downplaying the situation.

“Our information has proved to be credible in regards to what the community is concerned about," Adam said.

What they and the Mikisew Cree have been concerned about has been rising rates of cancer and other illnesses for the past decades, since tar sands development began in the 1970s, and especially since production began rocketing in the early 2000s.

Since 2009, several studies have raised concerns about cancer rates in the community, including the heightened presence of carcinogens in the water of the Athabasca River and in local wildlife, as well as cancer rates up to 30 percent higher than in the rest of the population. Those studies have mostly hedged on the causes though, often stating that links to the tar sands are inconclusive or that further study would be needed.


But by working closely with the community, including organizing several sessions where a full 10 percent of residents took part in discussions and reported on health changes in their community, researchers were able to track the increase in occurrences of cancer and other diseases in the area. The outcome traces a line between industrial development in the south and decreased health to the north.

Lisa King introducing McLachlan to a joint ACFN-MCFN meeting.
“This outcome is the first direct link between Oil Sands development and downstream health and wellbeing, in Fort Chipewyan and, for that matter, anywhere,” they write in the study.

Community members overwhelmingly reported that the current generation are less healthy than their parents were, and expressed extreme concern over growing cancer rates in the community. Of the 94 people who took part in sessions, 20 percent have or had cancer.

Perhaps most stunning is the revelation of the drastic ways in which changes in diet and ways of life brought on by tar sands development have disrupted nutrition and health.

McLachlan and his colleagues found high levels of toxins in local wildlife that make up the bulk of traditional, or what they refer to as “country,” food eaten by Fort Chip's residents.

Arsenic levels were high enough in muskrat and moose muscle; duck, moose, and muskrat livers; and moose and duck kidneys to be of concern for young children. Cadmium levels were again elevated in moose kidney and liver samples but also those of beaver and ducks, although muskrat samples were again low. Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys, and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys, especially for children. In contrast to the last phase of the study, selenium levels were high enough in the muscle, kidney, and livers of all wildlife species to be of concern for adults and children alike.


As the report points out, the levels may not always be dangerous, but the high presence of such toxins—which are associated with tar sands extraction processes—are still of considerable concern. The impact of many of these toxins is cumulative, as their presence in the environment, plants and wildlife increases over time. With ongoing plans to significantly ramp up tar sands development over the next year (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that production will increase 55 percent by 2030), there are concerns that the situation will only continue to worsen.

Ingesting contaminated food isn't the only impact, though. Residents are already well aware of the dangers of environmental toxins from industrial development. Most, according to the study, have stopped eating local fish because of government warnings concerning mercury levels. And many residents reported turning away from “country” food because they no longer trust it. Reports of lesions and abnormalities among hunted wildlife have raised alarm bells, even if the level of contaminants are not yet life-threatening.

The result, according to the report, is a severe disruption in the both communities’ traditional eating habits and way of life. The resulting turn to an increased consumption of store-bought processed foods high in calories and sugar has amounted to a “health crisis” in the community.

Food is between two and five times more expensive in northern communities than in the south, and fresh food like meat and vegetables are particularly expensive. In one session, a resident explained exactly how dire the situation is:


“Who in Fort Chip can afford to buy healthy foods? It is cheaper to buy a bag of chips than a banana. It is cheaper to buy a pop than it is to buy an orange. It is cheaper to buy a chocolate bar than it is a tomato. I go into the store and buy one jug of milk and one box of cereal and it is $20.”

The result is a “widespread” increase in Type 2 diabetes and obesity in the community, “attributed to the increased consumption of processed foods from the south, declines in physical activity, and depression.”

Overall, residents say, the health of the community is getting worse among younger generations.

Archie Antoine showing McLachlan a dried up lake in the summer of 2011.
Community members, including Adam, have been ringing warning bells about increasing rates of illness for over a decade. In particular, they've been calling for a baseline health study that would show the current health of the population, allowing them to be able to track changes in the coming years. But their request has alternated between being ignored and being hindered by government and industry officials refusing to work with the community in developing the parameters for such a study.

While McLachlan's work isn't the comprehensive study the community is asking for, both the researcher and Adam see it as a first step.

Why has this study been more successful in showing the impacts of the tar sands on health in the community than others?  For one part, McLachlan says, researchers have been looking in the wrong places. Other scientists have focused solely on contaminants. No one was willing to look at the actual health impacts in the community, or willing to take the time needed to build the links of trust necessary in order to have access to the information needed to write such a report. The other aspect, he said, is the unwillingness to accept the community's traditional knowledge of the land and their history in conducting research. A big mistake, according to the researcher.


“It helps improve the science,” he said. “They know so much about the community, the region, their health. It's folly not to pay attention to that.”

“It was always said that our people wanted to be part of [these research efforts,]” Adam said. “And this way we could clearly explain to them the situation from firsthand experience instead of just coming in, and they do a test and go, and don't communicate anymore. This way we have the follow-up information we need.”

The report is calling on researchers, including the Albertan government, to engage more directly with community members in the future. When reached for comment, Jason Malloney, a spokesperson for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Development, said that they were aware of the report and would be reviewing it. But generally, he said, the government takes the health of all Albertans very seriously and is committed to ongoing research. He also pointed to the establishment of the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program, which brings together government and First Nations representatives to monitor emissions from the tar sands. But most First Nations and Métis have left the body, including the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, and the Fort McKay Metis. Each of those groups said they left because there was no meaningful engagement with Indigenous communities' concerns.

Alberta Health said they have yet to review the report and could not comment at this time.

The report outlines another 36 recommendations, ranging from subsidizing good food boxes for northern communities, to conducting further research into high rates of selenium (a toxin) in local wildlife, to better monitoring of tar sands emissions and contaminants, to organizing screenings of an upcoming accompanying documentary made to go along with the report (which is meant to more easily summarize and communicate the findings, outside of the lengthy 240-page research document).

But of utmost importance is to conduct the baseline health survey, say both McLachlan and Chief Adam. “Without that we won't be able to determine the exact causes of the effects. We need that to get done, and only then will we be able to sort out our problems that we are having in the community," McLachlan says. “If changes are going to occur, then lets sit down and have a dialogue. But unless we sit down and have that dialogue, nothing will get done. @timmcsorley