Mythbusting: Do the Oilsands Cause Cancer?
The Royal Society of Canada is no apologist for Big Oil. Devoted to “recognizing excellence in learning and research” since 1882, it’s prestigious, it’s stacked with the brightest academics in the country, and, most importantly, it’s incorruptible. You won’t find any reasonable person — even oilsands critics — who’ll tell you otherwise.
So, if you’re going to consult an authority on the widely repeated myth that the oilsands have been linked to cancer problems in Fort Chipewyan, the largely native community downstream from the industry, you can’t do better than going with the RSC. And in its most recent, indepth report into the oilsands, released in December 2010, the Society’s Expert Panel on the Health Impacts of the Oil Sands Industry says this:
“There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipewyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates.” And “Environmental contaminants at current levels of exposure are unlikely to cause major health impacts for the general population. Projected additional emissions from expanded operations are not likely to change this expectation.” No cancer. Not now. Not in the future. None.
We’ve all seen bogus cancer scares come and go. There was the panic in the eighties that Alar, a ripening agent used on apples, was deadly cancerous. For a while, people living under power lines were told they were at serious cancer risk. Coffee and even electric blankets were at one point linked to cancer. Sometimes the culprit is incomplete research. But sometimes it’s dishonesty.
One man, a family physician named John O’Connor, who worked in Fort Chipewyan, is singularly responsible for starting the myth about oilsands-caused cancer. An opponent of the oilsands, O’Connor began telling reporters that he was diagnosing alarmingly high rates of a particularly rare form of cancer in the community, wondering aloud if it might be linked to the oilsands. Zealous anti-oilsands activists like Andrew Nikiforuk and Greenpeace heard all they needed to, and immediately assumed that the industry was causing cancer, and irresponsibly began broadcasting the claims. Drama-seeking filmmakers like Leslie Iwerks and Tom Radford heard about it, and put the stories in their documentaries. The myth had become unstoppable.
But it’s just that: a myth. Health Canada and the Alberta Cancer Board found nothing to back up the claims. And Dr. O’Connor was eventually caught fabricating his reports—he simply made up cases of cancer that did not exist—and was found guilty by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons of serious ethical breaches. Unfortunately, the myth persists, mostly because the people of Fort Chipewyan had come to trust Dr. O’Connor and so, sadly, many in that community are still convinced that there must be a cover-up afoot. As the Royal Society itself noted: “Highly publicized media reports of downstream contamination from oil sands developments are likely amplifying the considerable concern among downstream residents about their health.” That’s a shame. The people of Fort Chipewyan certainly aren’t at any elevated risk of cancer from the oilsands. But they are at risk of being manipulated, stressed and scared by the enemies of Ethical Oil who recklessly repeat these myths, even today.