AB physician sounded cancer alarm, slapped with College complaint
National Review of Medicine — Peter Woodford
March 30, 2007
A northern Alberta physician who publicly aired concerns over carcinogenic pollution from the massive oilsands development is being investigated by the province's College of Physicians and Surgeons. The complaint against him comes from none other than Health Canada, which claims the physician caused "undue alarm."
The doc — widely held to be Dr John O'Connor of Fort Chipewyan — says he's got a hunch the copious amounts of arsenic dumped into the water by the project might explain why so many of his mostly aboriginal patients are presenting with cancer — including rarer forms like cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer).
The College won't confirm or deny that Dr O'Connor has indeed been targeted. The family doc is no firebrand and an unlikely martyr for the environmental cause. When the government released selected data from a study and concluded that people in the community were less likely than the average Albertan to die of cancer, it pained him to disagree (fuller data, released later, would suggest his hunches were largely right). "I would absolutely accept it, if I saw they had done a complete analysis..., had all the information that they needed, and had the report peer reviewed prior to publishing it," he said at the time.
In fact, the whole business of fighting with the government made him literally sick and he said that he's planning to leave Fort Chip (as it's known locally) in the summer because of it. "It's been so consuming and so frustrating that my blood pressure has gone up and I have difficulty sleeping," he told the CBC late last year — even before the complaint to the College was filed. "It's just I'm worn out by this."
Dr O'Connor is now refusing to speak to the media until the complaint with the College is settled, his lawyer says.
Colleagues and members of the community came to the quick conclusion that Dr O'Connor is paying the price for attacking a sacred cow — Alberta's multi-billion dollar oil industry.
"It's a similar scenario to what had me fired in 2002 for speaking in favour of ratifying the Kyoto Accord in the interest of public health," said Dr David Swann, Liberal MLA for Calgary Mountain View, on his blog. Dr Swann was medical officer for the Palliser Health Region at the time he got the axe.
"I admire Dr O'Connor for his courage in standing up and speaking out on issues that should concern all Albertans," added Dr Swann in a March 6 interview with Fort McMurray Today. "This is not acceptable. We're a free country. We, as professionals, are called upon to act in the public interest and to raise issues, to challenge vested interest whether it's government's or industry's monetary interest for the betterment of the society."
Dr Swann and internist Dr Michel Sauvé — who's head of the intensive care unit in the same Fort McMurray hospital where Dr O'Connor is based and also regularly flies in to Fort Chip to treat patients — both feel that this case is evidence that whistleblower legislation is needed to protect doctors. Dr Sauvé has said he thinks the complaint was "politically motivated."
The parties involved in the alleged complaint against Dr O'Connor aren't saying much.
"We can confirm that Health Canada physicians have lodged a complaint which involves several professional practice issues with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons against a northern Alberta doctor," says Carole Saindon of Health Canada.
"The College of Physicians and Surgeons recommends that complaints not be discussed publicly. Health Canada respects this recommendation."
Unsurprisingly, the College won't comment on Dr O'Connor's case, nor will the Alberta government.
The Athabasca oilsands (formerly called the tar sands) were long thought impractical to exploit. But high oil prices and technological innovations have made the area feasible to develop — and all of a sudden the province's accessible oil reserves rival Saudi Arabia's. But the catch is that to get oil from the bitumen (natural tar) enormous amounts of toxic waste water are created. And this raises concerns that profits from this development come at the expense of aboriginal lives.
"We need to know if there are excessive toxins in these resins and we need to see if people are dying from rare cancer or some devastating immune disorders — that someone is collecting some samples on these people to see what is the concentration of toxins," explained Dr Sauvé to Fort McMurray Today.
There have been some studies looking at the arsenic levels found in the region's fauna — but findings were contradictory. A recent study by Suncor, an oil company, found that a proposed development would lead to arsenic levels in moose meat — a local staple — 453 times the acceptable limit. The province and Imperial Oil dismissed the study saying their own data said the levels were much lower. Imperial Oil spokesperson Kim Fox stated back in November that her company's study estimated arsenic levels were 15 times lower than the Suncor numbers. "The people who actually conduct these studies tend to be very, very conservative in their methodologies. Even with these conservative approaches, what we've found is that oilsands do not contribute to increase in arsenic in the area."
ARSENIC & OLD LIES?
Locals are not convinced. "Those big shots running our government — they don't give a darn who dies, they're not concerned about us," said one Fort Chipewyan elder in a CBC radio interview. "I've fished since I was 13 in Lake Athabasca. I've seen fish in the last five or six years with great lumps on them, humpbacks, crooked tails, some of the pickerel rotting alive — I've never seen that before in all the years I commercial fished. What are they putting into the water?"
Such cynicism towards the provincial government is commonplace among First Nations communities living near the oilsands developments. On March 6, the Mikisew Cree in Fort Chipewyan pulled out of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), dismissing the watchdog institution as a crock. "CEMA is a parking lot where everything, all the major issues, are placed. Meanwhile approvals [for new oilsands projects] are given," Mikisew spokesperson Sherman Sheh told the CBC. Indeed, CEMA was initially given five years to release an assessment on how much oil development the province could sustain without permanently wrecking the environment. It's already been seven years and CEMA hasn't released its report, all the while oilsands development has been continuing apace. The Athabaska Cree have also given up on CEMA.