Why is Cancer Sweeping Tiny Fort Chipewyan?
Why is cancer sweeping tiny Fort Chipewyan?
Globe and Mail Update
Fort Chipewyan, Alta. – For century upon century, Lake Athabasca has been a
source of water, fish and fur for the aboriginal people who live on its
sprawling shores in the far north of Alberta.
Now, it has become a source of fear.
|Tar sands mining operation|
A rare and lethal liver cancer plagues Fort Chipewyan, a tidy hamlet of 1,200 at
the southwest corner of Lake Athabasca, in numbers that should be seen only in a
population the size of a major city. Leukemia, lymphoma and lupus have also
gnawed their way through the population, largely made up of the Athabasca
Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree. There is not yet a scientific verdict in the mystery
of what is happening in Fort Chipewyan, but the residents have their own answer:
A generation ago, Lake Athabasca was clear and clean enough that Fort Chipewyan
residents drew their drinking water straight from it, and thought nothing about
dipping a cup over the side of a canoe during hunting trips. Those days are long
gone, as industrial development — particularly the explosive growth of the oil
sands — accelerates along the Athabasca River, the main tributary of Lake
The belief — only that, for the moment — in Fort Chipewyan is that something
from the oil sands is contaminating the Athabasca and ravaging the health of the
people who live downstream.
Nearly four years after the hamlet’s only doctor first voiced concern about the
cluster of cancer cases, the provincial and federal governments have launched a
joint investigation into the illness that seems to be sweeping Fort Chipewyan.
The Athabasca and Mikisew people are waiting for answers from those officials,
but in the meantime, they have their own explanations.
“It is speculation to say it’s the water. But for me, it’s common sense,” said
Lorraine Mercredi, who bought a water-filtration system after her aunt and a
cousin, still in his early thirties, died from cancers of the digestive tract.
Other Fort Chipewyan residents, too afraid to drink from their taps at all, are
paying to have bottled water flown in.
When Ivy Simpson was diagnosed as having cervical cancer, her doctors did not
tell her what had made her ill. But the Fort Chipewyan resident, who now lives
about 250 kilometres to the south in Fort McMurray, has no doubt about what
caused her cancer.
“It had to have been something from the water, air or land,” said the
27-year-old, who was just 17 when she contracted cervical cancer, a disease
usually found in much older women.
Her extended family in Fort Chipewyan has been hit hard by cancer. Her mother,
Mary Simpson, said a cousin, Warren, got testicular cancer. An aunt died of
uterine cancer in the late 1980s, and Ivy Simpson’s 41-year-old sister has
terminal cervical cancer.
Like many in Fort Chipewyan, the Simpsons began to suspect their surroundings
were making them sick after the town’s fly-in doctor, John O’Connor, began to
push for an official inquiry into what he saw as an astonishingly high number of
A few months after arriving in 2001, Dr. O’Connor noticed a set of disturbing
symptoms in a patient: yellowed eyes, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. It was
disturbing not only because it pointed to cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and deadly
cancer of the bile duct. The symptoms were all too familiar for Dr. O’Connor,
whose father died of the cancer 13 years ago in Ireland.
“I know a lot about it, but I never expected to see it again,” he said. “Without
treatment, you’re dead in about a month. My dad lasted six weeks.” Dr. O’Connor
said at least three residents of Fort Chipewyan, and likely another two, have
died of the disease within the past five years. Statistically speaking, there
should be only one case for every 100,000 people, and none at all for a
community the size of Fort Chipewyan, he said.
There are similar patterns with other serious diseases. Since 2001, he has
diagnosed five cases of leukemia and four cases of lymphoma, a cancer that
originates in the lymphatic system. In the past year, Dr. O’Connor has treated
at least six patients with Graves’ disease, an immune-system ailment, and has
seen entire families stricken with lupus, another serious autoimmune disease. So
far this year, six people have died of colon cancer, the youngest just 33 years
old, the doctor said.
He visits a number of northern communities in his weekly rounds, and no other
has been hit by the kind of cancer cluster seen in Fort Chipewyan. Those other
communities do not draw their drinking water from the Athabasca River or the
lake, however. Faced with those seemingly unique numbers, Dr. O’Connor said he
cannot help but believe the cancers in Fort Chipewyan are linked to industrial
development elsewhere on the water system. The pulp-and-paper industry is a
possibility, he thinks. So is Uranium City, Sask., on the northeast shore of
Lake Athabasca, where mining activity ceased years ago, but contamination
lingers. Then there are the oil sands, which have been producing bitumen using
river water for decades and are heading into a massive expansion.
Much of the province’s future prosperity hinges on that growth, a reality Dr.
O’Connor believes at least partly explains why it took more than three years for
the provincial and federal governments to launch a formal investigation.
Now that investigation is under way. A team of doctors from Edmonton employed by
the federal government was in Fort Chipewyan last week laying the groundwork for
a rigorous statistical study aimed at determining whether the hamlet has an
unusual incidence of cancer, and if it does, what is causing it. Health Canada,
Alberta’s Health and Wellness department and the Alberta Cancer Board are all
taking part in the investigation, the only one of its kind in the province.
“We take these concerns very seriously,” said Salim Samanani of Health Canada’s
First Nations and Inuit Health branch.
Alberta Health and Wellness Minister Iris Evans said government officials “are
all over” the alarming medical concerns coming out of the northern Albertan
community. She said her ministry is working with the provincial cancer board on
an “intensive analysis” of the problem.
Investigators say it will take up to three months to assemble statistics, in
part because the team will have to acquire all the data, including confirmations
of Dr. O’Connor’s diagnoses. One of the first tasks will be to determine whether
the massing anecdotal evidence of a rising number of cancer cases is borne out
by statistics; whether there is, in fact, a cancer cluster. Another major
difficulty is that the kinds of cancers cropping up in Fort Chipewyan have
multiple causes. Ms. Simpson believes environmental contaminants made her ill,
although the main risk factor for cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus.
Another possible contributor is a diet poor in fresh fruits and vegetables, a
near certainty in Fort Chipewyan, where a head of cauliflower costs $7.
Dr. Samanani of First Nations and Inuit Health said he is sure of at least one
thing: the drinking water, which is filtered through modern treatment
facilities, is safe.
“I felt quite comfortable coming in and drinking the water,” Dr. Samanani said,
later draining a tall glass of tap water in the staff kitchen of Fort
Chipewyan’s nursing station.
However, it is equally certain that residue from the oil sands is being pumped
into the Athabasca River. The oil-sands industry uses water to separate bitumen,
which can be turned into crude oil, from sand. Some operators then treat
portions of that water and return it to the river, where it eventually flows
into Lake Athabasca — and the water supply of Fort Chipewyan.
Suncor Energy Inc., the oldest oil-sands operator, does discharge “process
water” into the river. However, the company emphasizes that it has dramatically
reduced in recent years the overall volume of water it returns to the Athabasca
as it has improved its recycling efforts, and that the hydrocarbons and other
chemicals that are in the water are far below Alberta’s limits.
For instance, Suncor discharges just under 20 kilograms of oil and grease each
day into the Athabasca, a large and fast-flowing river. Under provincial
regulations, it is allowed to discharge up to 150 kilograms each day.
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers similarly stresses that the
oil-sands industry continues to comply with the government’s environmental
regulations, and that it will take appropriate action as new data becomes
“When good science is brought to bear, we will respond to it,” said Pierre
Alvarez, president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
Industry is waiting, and governments to the south are moving, after years of
delay. But fear has overridden the patience of the people of Fort Chipewyan.
Many are buying bottled water, and one official with the Mikisew is starting to
push for Edmonton or the oil sands industry to pay for everyone to drink water
that would be flown into the community.
“We’re the dumping ground for whatever comes down the river,” said band
councillor Matthew Lepine, noting that the health concerns are all the more
worrying as he looks at how quickly the oil sands will expand in the coming
decade. “It’s going way, way too fast. There’s a lot of unanswered questions.”
However, he says he is not hopeful that southern governments will listen to his
people, and muses that his band – which won a major aboriginal rights victory in
November in the Supreme Court – might be forced to launch another legal challenge.
Back in Fort McMurray, Ms. Simpson voices the same sense of hopelessness, of her
belief that her people’s health will inevitably be put at risk for economic gain
elsewhere. “There’s going to be a bunch of rich people, and a bunch of sick people.”