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not all is equal. what choice will you make?

Mythbusting: Do the Oilsands Cause Cancer?

Alykhan July 6, 2011

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.


Comments (29)

    • Ya coz only morons would believe this bullshit. The oil companies spoon feed u this shit and morons just eat it up. Try looking at some independent studies not paid for or influenced at all by the oil companies

      • Ok, let’s see…..Health Canada and the provincial health agency are at odds with the kooky doctor. The college of physicians has censured him for unethical behavior related to this topic. May I presume that they are all in collusion, part of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to promote the oil sands, and to kill native Canadians?

        This is a great website, stay the course.

      • Oh, you mean those independent studies funded by hard line environut groups, or foreign national interest groups??

  1. I signed up in your publication, so please keep up the informative posts! Perhaps there is a way to disable that online system!2

  2. Lets look at some common sense for a minute. Assuming you are remotely correct about it not causing cancer which I highly doubt. I would trust an independent research paper not the propaganda bullshit the oil companies give. I can guarantee you that oil has many dangerous health hazards. Otherwise how would you explain the millions of deaths among animals every single time there is an oil spill? Coincidence? I think not.

  3. The truth about what the First Nations truly think of the Tar Sands is captured very well in this documentary:

    Let the First Nations do the speaking for themselves rather then allowing the oil companies do the talking for them.

  4. If you ever try going swimming in the Athabasca River upstream of the oilsands you will find that in many spots you will be covered in bitumen. The river cuts right through the heart of the oilsands. You can reach down in the river and get a handful of oily sand. It has been that way for thousands of years.

  5. Typical left wing, anti-business, anti-development protest rhetoric, emotion in place of fact, foul language, baseless allegations vs. reasoned discussion. Be thankful children that “ethical oil” and other development activity in this country supports a society that allows for this type of mindless, baseless rhetoric to even in exist.

  6. DUH. You guys are taking the most obvious part of the report. Unless you EAT the oil sands or directly inhale the refinery smoke, you won’t get cancer. Isn’t that so obvious?

  7. DUH. You guys are taking the most obvious part of the report. Unless you EAT the oil sands or directly inhale the refinery smoke, you won’t get cancer. Isn’t that so obvious?

  8. You can pay anyone to say anything you want them to say. Thin about it, just for a minute – toxic tailings ponds spill and seep into the athabasca river and the lake. the Native peoples in these territories historically died of old age – realllly old age. they live off the land – the plants and animals they consume, drink and grow in contamination. If you think that because a study done with no frame of reference to the history of these people and the health of their culture is accurate – you are blind. they used to think ddt and asbestos were safe. we used to think it was ok to pour pesticide and herbicide and hormones and steroids into our crops and animal stocks… but we were wrong. time will tell and while you sit there all high and mighty believing what you want to believe because the truth is so horrible – asj yourself this – is it still genocide if it takes 40 years to kill these nations? SHAME.

    • Did they really died of old age or didn’t they get that old in the first place, live without energy provided by fossil fuels in the past has been dirty, smelly and most importantly short. Sitting in a teepee filled with smoke from an open fire in the centre having only something to eat if you have been able to catch some local wildlife. Drinking water straight from the lake or river including all the bacterias and other illnesses you get with that. Live in the past hasn’t been as utopian as you like to believe.
      Talking about genocide your local Greenpeace Hippy failed to inform you that due to the ban of DDT 30 to 60 million children died in Africa from malaria, every day 370 children die in Uganda alone and the connection DDT = Cancer has never been proven to be correct. The UN lifted the ban on DDT a few years ago due to the disastrous consequences.
      The Challenger space shuttle explosion has been traced back to the use of asbestos free sealing putty that was inferior to the asbestos containing kind.

    • Ya I’d love to see those census reports proving how long the those native people lived before they had access to things like modern medicine…

  9. Document from the RSC appears to be a legit research study, it raises questions about the credibility of the evidence presented in many anti-Oil Sands arguments.

    That said, this website is awful: The ideological slant of the author is as plain as the nose on your face.

    Stalin and Hitler called, they want their propaganda machine back.

  10. 2007 – Dr. Connor was cleared by the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons of three of the charges, except causing “undue alarm”. He was never found guilty of ethical breaches.
    2009 – Alberta Cancer Board released a study that found higher-than-expected rates of some rare cancers among residents in Fort Chipewyan
    2009 – In March, Fort Chipewyan residents issued a statement to Health Canada and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, demanding that the remaining charge against O’Connor be dismissed.

    “This charge of ‘causing undue alarm’ since it was lodged was the cause of much frustration and disbelief by residents of Fort Chipewyan,” the statement said.

    “Frustration, because the residents of the community have never been consulted on whether we agree with the charge; and disbelief that the very responsible authority who is charged with protecting our interests and our health was actually lodging the complaints against Dr. John O’Connor, rather than coming to the aid of our community to find resolution to Dr. John O’ Connor’s claims.”

    This website is filled with misinformation. It should be called

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  12. If ‘Ethical Oil’ was, it would release the full and complete list of chemicals it injects into the ground.

    ‘Ethical Oil’ isn’t.

  13. seen it all before January 5, 2012 at 01:30

    Don’t tell me, let me guess? A couple of environmental groups sent out an e-mail fan out and urge their members to get on the Ethicaloil website and get hysterical. I’ve seen of 100 times before when working in the BC forest industry. To bad greenies, but your little games are completely transparent.

  14. More like Deathical Oil. Burnt petroleum is air pollution, & air pollution causes cancer. There’s one atmosphere and every drop Deathical Oil becomes pollution. Every drop of Deathical Oil will be spilled – spilled into the air that we all breath. Oil is pollution, oil is cancer. Oil is cancer now, Oil is cancer in the future. Always

  15. My husband works in a gas processing plant. It is assumed by all people working there that their job will likely decrease their life expectancy, which is party responsible for the attitude, ‘enjoy it now while you’ve got it’ that many of us in this industry have adapted. They are aware that they are being exposed to increased levels of substances known to cause respiratory damage and known carcinogens. When the plant has an ‘oops’ and spews a yellow cloud over the the local town, people who are exposed are affected. These risks come with the industry and no one who works in it needs a report to know this. We are willing to live with this; its part of the job. What I can’t tolerate is emotionally charged rhetoric slamming people and groups who raise legitimate concerns and labeling them as your ‘enemies’. With your propagandist stance you are indeed creating many enemies. Your methods inhibit an open honest dialogue based on facts and I will say the same for emotionally charged environmental postings as well. This is a huge issue for all of Canadians, particularly British Comumbians and Albertans. Please stick to facts so that we can make an informed decision on this important issue.

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