Alberta report finds Fort Chipewyan has higher rates of three kinds of cancer

An Alberta government report has found that rates for three kinds of cancer are elevated in Fort Chipewyan, a community in the oilsands region, even though overall cancer rates are on par with other parts of the province.

The study, which examined cases between 1992 and 2011, found higher-than-expected levels of cervical cancer, bile duct cancer and, among women, lung cancer.

While researchers would have expected to see roughly 79 cases in a community of Fort Chipewyan’s size, they found 81, which was not a significant difference.

Researchers did not expect to see any cases of bile duct cancer, and observed three. They expected to find one case of cervical cancer, and found four. And, they expected to find three women with lung cancer, and found eight.

Residents of Fort Chipewyan have worried for years about whether living downstream from oil developments is affecting their health.

Story continues below advertisement

James Talbot, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said at a press conference that the government found little evidence that environmental conditions played a factor.

“There isn’t much evidence for lung cancer and for cervical cancer to have an environmental cause at all,” he said. “The American Cancer Society lists 12 causes that are known with good evidence to be risk factors for bile duct cancer. None of those are chemicals that would be found in the environment.

“There isn’t strong evidence for an association between any of these cancers and environmental exposure.”

The majority of cervical cancers are related to human papilloma virus exposure, says a press release from Alberta Health Services, and most lung cancers are related to smoking.

Bile duct cancer is more complex, but known risk factors include obesity, family history, liver cirrhosis, inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes and hepatitis. Some possible risk factors are HIV infection, and exposure to radon, dioxin, nitrosamines and some polychlorinated biphenyls, according to the press release.

According to a bulletin from WorkSafe BC, oil workers may come into contact with naturally-occurring radioactive materials, such as radon, though it also states that exposures are generally quite low.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said in a press release that the report’s findings don’t square with what he has seen in the community. “Although the report states that cancer is not higher than expected we can’t argue the fact that people are getting sick and people are getting cancers.” The statement noted that this report was not a peer-reviewed study, just a report on provincial statistics.

Story continues below advertisement

“It’s time for a real study,” Adam said.

“Where industry and government have no participation – nor does the First Nation – and let the independent study commence and go through the whole process in regards to their findings and come out with a true, accurate report in regards to what’s been going on in the community of Fort Chip,” Adam told Global News.

He says the report was done for one reason.

“Ease the public response to this and garner more support for approvals of more projects in the region, which we’re saying is ludicrous,” says Adam.

“Why should we give more approvals for the region if they’re already having doubts in regards to health concerns in our community?”

If the study doesn’t point definitively to the oilsands as an environmental carcinogen, however, it does illustrate the potential health risks related to the socioeconomic conditions often associated with poorer, remote communities.

Diabetes rates among Aboriginals in Canada are much higher than in the general population – 17.2 per cent for First Nations living on-reserve and 10.3 per cent for those living off-reserve, as opposed to 5 per cent in the non-Aboriginal population, according to a 2011 study by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

According to a study by Statistics Canada, Aboriginal populations also report higher smoking rates. Many residents in Fort Chipewyan are Aboriginal.

These health problems are also strongly correlated to income – according to studies, poorer people are more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, and are also more likely to smoke. Low-income Canadians are more likely in general to report poorer health than those in higher income brackets, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

With files from the Canadian Press