Inconvenient truth about oilsands and cancer

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“Don’t confuse us with facts.” That’s what opponents of the oilsands seem to be saying about the latest report on alleged links between oilsands development and cancer among First Nations people in Northern Alberta.

Their next step will almost certainly be shooting the messenger, James Talbot, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. Watch for environmental activists and “green” politicians to start claiming Talbot is a puppet of the provincial government or “Big Oil.”

On Monday, Talbot released a study of cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, a little more than 200 km downstream from the oilsands plants. The report included a look at all cases of cancer in the region between 1992 and 2011.

The report found no elevated risk in the area. Whereas a population the size, age and gender of Fort Chip’s should have had 79 cancer cases over the 19 years of the study, Fort Chip had 81. Statistically average.

Talbot did find that the occurrence of three types of cancer was slightly higher than it should be – cervical cancer, lung cancer and bile-duct cancer. But, he explained, "There isn’t strong evidence for any of these cancers and environmental exposure.”

In other words, even for these three types of cancer, pollution from the oilsands was not the cause.

Indeed, what went only partly said – hinted at, really – was that two of these cancers have strong links to lifestyle choices, and the third one might as well.

If there are elevated incidents of some types of cancer in the area, those are more likely the result of residents’ lifestyle choices than toxins from the ‘sands seeping into the water or air.

The connection between smoking and lung cancer is well known.

Talbot didn’t say that was the reason there were eight female lung cancers in two decades in a community that, statistically, should only have had four. But he did say, “We know that for tobacco smoking, aboriginal communities are hard hit. They have a significant proportion of smokers.” And his recommendation to cut down on lung cancers was not to shutter the oilsands, but rather “enhancing smoking prevention and cessation efforts.”

Similarly with cervical cancer, 85% or more of cases are caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV), which, according to the American Cancer Society, is most often found in “women who have many sexual partners or who have sex with men who have had many other partners.”

That’s why Talbot recommended more HPV vaccinations in Fort Chip, rather than less oilsands development like eco-activists want.

Even bile-duct cancer is thought to have some lifestyle risks such as obesity, diabetes, alcoholism, viral hepatitis and family history.

But don’t expect Talbot’s findings to quiet the controversy that began nearly a decade ago when doctor (and Greenpeace activist) John O’Connor whipped up fear of the oilsands-cancer connection among aboriginal people in northeastern Alberta.

This marks the third time O’Connor’s findings have been questioned. And it will almost certainly mark the third time anti-oilsands and anti-pipeline activists have done their best to shoot down criticism of O’Connor.

His original assertions that the oilsands are a toxic mess laying waste to lives and land are simply too valuable to their quasi-religious cause.

Last month, the very “green” Democratic senator from California, Barbara Boxer, invited O’Connor to come spin his distorted claims before the U.S. Senate’s environment committee.

Talbot is not in the pocket of any government or oil lobby. So his conclusions will be harder for oilsands opponents to dismiss. Still, they will try.

The oilsands and pipelines have come to symbolize all that is evil about oil and climate change. The global warming cultists will not give up without a counterattack.