Dr. John O'Connor is a physician-turned-whistleblower who was the first to raise concerns about high rates of cancer in a community downstream of the Alberta tar sands.
O'Connor was invited to testify to a standing committee about his experience. The following is the transcript of his testimony.
June 11, 2009
Honourable members, I'm very honoured to be here today and very glad of the opportunity to present my concerns about Fort Chipewyan. My name is John O'Connor, and I'm a family physician currently based in Nova Scotia. My practice is divided between Nova Scotia and northern Alberta.
Since 2001 I've been providing primary care services to Fort Chipewyan, which is a community about an hour's flight north of Fort McMurray, population 1,200, situated on the west end of the northern shore of Lake Athabasca. It's a very beautiful community, far off the beaten track, right on the edge of the Canadian Shield. When I came to the community initially I was told that to be accepted I had to gain the respect and trust of the elders. So I sat for hours and hours listening to them talk, and they're very articulate and eloquent. They told me about their concerns for their community. They told me about their past and their traditions; 80%-plus of the community subsist on traditional ways, so they hunt, fish, gather, and trap.
They talked about what they used to do, often spending days on the lake and on the river fishing, able to scoop water out of the lake and drink it, often spending two to three days on some of the many islands on the lake, boiling water for tea and soup, etc. They also talked about the plentiful fish and ducks, and especially muskrat. People who don't have a lot of money definitely use what they can from the land and no more than that. They also described how things have changed in recent years, how the water quality had changed. They kept getting back to that: the water had a constant film of oil on it. Often the muskrat they looked for, they could not find, the population dwindling, and they would often find them dead in their lairs. As they skinned them they noticed the flesh was red, and as they said, it looked as if they'd been poisoned. The duck population had diminished. The most curious of all was their description of the changes in the fish and the increasing numbers of fish being pulled from the lake with tumours, deformities, crooked fins, missing parts, crooked spines, and bulging eyes. They would frequently also say that the fish tasted oily, and it wouldn't be fit for consumption.
So that was my background when I arrived in the community. I documented in my time there diagnoses that had been made prior to my arriving in the community, and in the years I was in the community I noticed a very strange situation seemed to be happening. I had a population of about 9,000 patients in my practice in Fort McMurray at the time. So I constantly compared the 1,200 people in Fort Chip with my 9,000 or so in Fort McMurray, and I really wasn't seeing anything of the types of illnesses or the numbers of illnesses that I was seeing....
The one that scared me the most was this cholangiocarcinoma. My father passed away in Ireland in 1993 from this illness. It occurs at a frequency of approximately 1 in 100,000. It's a very aggressive, nasty cancer. It's very difficult to diagnose, and often by the time it is diagnosed, it's too late. The treatment of it itself is almost as bad as the illness, and it is frequently just a palliative procedure.
The other illnesses, both malignant and non-malignant, were, in my experience and in discussions with colleagues in Fort McMurray, unusual, to say the least, for such a small population. I asked a simple question: was I seeing in this community something that was related to the lifestyle? Could it be a genetics issue? Was it simply bad luck? Or could it possibly have been linked to the environmental changes that were very real in the minds of people in Fort Chip?
The community was approached by Health Canada in April of 2006, and one of the very first actions of one of the physicians coming into the community was to come into the nursing station, fill his mouth with tap water, take a big swig, and turn to the Globe and Mail reporter and say, “There's nothing wrong with the water here in Fort Chip.” This was an insult. It triggered a lot of anger in the community.
They went on to say they were going to do a study of illnesses in the community, and they took boxes of deceased files to Edmonton. They told us we wouldn't see them until September.
About six weeks later they arrived back, telling us that everything was fine. They had actually given the information to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board in Fort McMurray the week before, because that board was being asked questions about any potential health impacts of ongoing tar sands mining. The community was flabbergasted at this. Independent analysis of their findings at that time pointed out that actually what they found showed a 29% higher rate of cancer. The government did not accept this.
They also talked about arsenic and asked the community to send samples of moose meat and bulrushes to Edmonton for analysis. The community had actually heard about this in the newspapers in Fort McMurray a few days before, because industry had warned that arsenic might climb to about 500 times the upper limit of what's considered acceptable. At this point, the community did not trust that the government would come up with anything.
Nevertheless, a few months later samples were sent out for analysis, and of course they came back showing that the levels of arsenic were between 17 and 33 times the upper limit of normal, not 500. This was supposed to be a reassurance for the community.
In 2007 I got a large envelope in the mail from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in Edmonton, and it was not a gift. It was a list of complaints that Health Canada had laid about my activities in Fort Chip. They accused me of blocking access to files, billing irregularities, engendering a sense of mistrust in government in Fort Chip, and causing undue alarm in the community.
I responded to all of these charges, and the College of Physicians gave me the all-clear. A few weeks later the registrar of the college wrote to me saying that the issue of raising undue alarm still wasn't cleared, so I've actually been battling that since then.
In November of 2007, a few months later, Dr. Kevin Timoney, an ecologist in Edmonton, presented a study that he'd been commissioned to do by Fort Chip about their environment. It showed appalling levels of arsenic, mercury, and PAHs, on a par with or greater than what was found off the coast of Alaska after the Exxon Valdez went down. Ongoing analysis shows clearly that these chemicals, these toxins, have an industrial fingerprint. I'm not a scientist; I've read lots about what's documented, much of which comes from Alberta and federal government documentation.
The community has several times—probably four or five times— publicly proclaimed and written to Health Canada and the College of Physicians to tell them that they were never consulted about undue alarm and that they were never consulted, period. They've asked that this charge be withdrawn. They've actually asked Health Canada to fire their senior physician, who was in charge of all this, and this is all completely unsolicited by me. The Alberta Medical Association came out unanimously in support of my activity, saying that I have the right to be a patient advocate, which is all I'm doing.
In February of 2008 the Alberta Cancer Board started a cancer study of the community, a much more comprehensive study. They released their findings in 2009. The preamble told the community that the government had been wrong in 2006 to give the community the all-clear, that there was actually a 30% higher rate of cancer and, in some areas, rare cancers. They suggested ongoing monitoring over the next 5 to 10 years. The community is not accepting of this idea.
At this point, my feeling is that there's been enough evidence accumulated. We know the toxins identified in the environment in and around Fort Chip can cause the illnesses that are occurring in the community. There's been enough scientific discussion and agreement with what's going on. Surely, surely, it's now time—and I believe it's way beyond time—to do a comprehensive health study in this community.
I'm here purely as a simple family physician and a patient advocate. My only concern is the health of this community. I'm not a radical; I am, I guess, an activist now. I'm not political, although I've been accused of it. I'll carry whatever label you want to put on me. I'm a patient advocate, and I will be to the end, and I'm going to see this through no matter what it takes.
Thank you very much.