High cancer rates confirmed near Canada's oil sands

Fri Feb 6, 2009 5:10pm EST
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By Scott Haggett

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Health officials in Alberta confirmed on Friday that there are more cases of cancer than expected in a small aboriginal village downstream from the Canadian province's massive oil sands plants, but they said there was no cause for residents to be alarmed.

Residents of the village of Fort Chipewyan, a one-time trading post on the northeast shore of Lake Athabasca, say oil sands developments may be responsible for rare bile-duct cancers first spotted by a doctor in the community in 2006.

Those complaints sparked a study by Alberta health authorities, which released the results on Friday.

The study said that while the incidence of cancer was higher than expected in the village of about 1,400, only two of the six cases of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma reported by the community's doctor were confirmed, while three were other types of cancer, and one was not cancer at all.

However, the study found 47 individuals in the community had 51 different cancers over the 1995 to 2006 study period, more that the 39 cases health officials had expected to find.

"The overall findings show no cause for alarm," said Dr. Tony Fields, a vice-president at Alberta Health Services. "But they do, however, point to the need for some more investigation."

The village is about 260 kilometers (160 miles) north of Fort McMurray, where a number of projects have been established to mine the oil sands, as part of the process that converts the tar-like bitumen stripped from the sand into synthetic crude oil.

Lake Athabasca is fed by the Athabasca River, which flows through the project region, and earlier studies have found unsafe levels of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon in the lake's fish, as well as in sediments, water and wildlife.   Continued...