Report on Alberta doctors and oilpatch raises concerns among opposition critics


EDMONTON – Opposition politicians are raising concerns over a report done for Alberta’s energy regulator that suggests doctors are reluctant to draw links between health problems and the energy industry.

“We do have a culture in this province which actively diminishes healthy and important debate about the health and environmental effects of our dominant industry,” NDP critic Rachel Notley said Monday.

David Swann, a Liberal member of the legislature, said the government doesn’t even want to know the truth.

“It’s clear the government doesn’t really want to know the best science in some of these areas,” said Swann, who lost his job as a public health doctor for speaking out on climate change during the Tory government of Ralph Klein. “They haven’t funded it, and they haven’t disseminated the knowledge appropriately to the physician population.”

On Tuesday, a hearing is set to begin in Peace River, Alta., about the source and effects of odours that landowners blame on the local oilpatch, particularly the operations of Baytex Energy.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. Residents say the fumes from those heated tanks are causing powerful gassy smells and leading to symptoms that include severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

Among the reports commissioned for the hearing by the Alberta Energy Regulator is one from Margaret Sears, a doctor in chemical engineering, who has testified on environmental contamination for many bodies including the Royal Society of Canada.

Sears wrote that even though most health professionals believe petrochemical emissions affect health, Peace River doctors seemed unwilling to consider if the conditions their patients complained of were caused by long-term exposure to petrochemicals.

“There were reports from various sources that physicians would not diagnose a relationship between bitumen exposures and chronic symptoms, that physician care was refused for individuals suggesting such a connection,” she wrote.

Even medical labs refused to conduct an analysis when told it was to be used to try to establish such a link, said Sears.

One doctor, in a medical report released as part of the hearing, advised his patient “to go through environmental lawyers” and did not prescribe treatment.

Sears confirmed to The Canadian Press that her conclusions were based on interviews with both patients and doctors.

She wrote that the physicians’ reluctance stemmed in part from a lack of research they could use to form a credible opinion and in part from “fear of consequences.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. John O’Connor, a doctor who was disciplined in 2007 for raising cancer concerns in the oilpatch community of Fort Chipewyan. The Alberta Cancer Board has since found elevated levels of four different cancers in the community.

“It has been said to me many a time over the last few years, or words to that effect,” he said.

“It’s not easy. You set yourself up as a moving target.”

Matthew Grant, spokesman for Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne, downplayed Sears’s suggestions.

“No concerns of this nature have been forwarded to our office. We would always expect physicians to inform the government of any public health concerns they may have.”

Notley said the province has consistently avoided conducting research that could answer the kind of questions being raised in Peace River.

“The status quo is to believe that nothing’s wrong and all industry has to do is say, ‘Show us a mountain of evidence,'” she said. “It’s very imbalanced, and that imbalance works against people without the resources to build those mountains of evidence.”

Swann said Alberta public health doctors aren’t trained enough to be able to diagnose health complaints caused by environmental contamination.

“We haven’t been trained to do the physical assessment, order the right blood tests and put together the exposure with the health systems,” he said. “We’re working in ignorance, and there is the fear of challenging both government and industry in such a dominant industry activity here.”

Swann said his experience was widely noted among his colleagues.

“I paid a price, 10 years ago. I think the lesson most physicians took from that is that you speak up at your risk.”

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Report on Alberta doctors and oilpatch raises concerns among opposition critics

  1. Like I said….Albertans live on myth.

    • Ontario lives on handouts.

      • LOL Another Alberta myth.

        • Reality bites Emily. But there’s no shame in being a have not province. Really. Don’t consider the money a hand out, think of it as a hand up!

          • LOL

          • LOL save now and maybe you can buy a new watershed in a few decades…I’m for massive exploitation till collapse, they learned in Poland when they cut down all the trees, we’ll learn here when we cant drink the water.

  2. Every job has its hazards. Even a chair mushroom job with government leads to issues. In fact, we don’t have enough data collection to make accurate statements on many claims made today. No scientific method, just politics and wild statements of self serving nature.

    Take cancer, and what people will not talk about be it radon on Ontario homes or background radiation in areas in which we live, or the fish we eat that are affected by Japan’s nuke leak…. We account for very little and get a lot of conjecture and self serving propaganda in todays fear for money junk science.

    Funny too, tar sands have been leaking hydrocarbons for millions of years. Now when other peoples money is up for grabs, the parasite political interests fund most of the FUD.

    As for the symptoms they have, is it normalized for Oxycontin and alcohol abuse and other factors? Doubtful. As its all about politics and not the truths.

  3. Believe This:

    The IPCC and the global scientific community is in full consensus with nothing beyond: “could be” and have never said; “inevitable” or “eventual” or WILL be a crisis. Prove me wrong and show us scientific certainty of “BELIEF”.

    YOU can believe in this misery all you want but you cannot tell little children that science agrees as much as you “believe”.

    Deny that.

    • ???

      • You have to admit… it is tough to deny what you can’t understand.

  4. The stuff is harmless people. Our Dear Leader bathes in it and he’s fine!

  5. It’s not the job of regional family physicians to generate the data on cancer rates. It takes a methodologically-sound epidemiology study to establish a co-relation, if any, between exposure to oil sands effluvia and cancer.

    And, of course, neither the Alberta government or the oil companies want to finance such research.

    • That peer-reviewed research has been done. It cost over $20 million dollars and involved experts from around the world.

      The study can be read here:

      Oncologists and statisticians worldwide were involved in the peer-reviewed study. But because the results of the study don’t match the belief of the kooks, the kooks keep fabricating new spurious claims.

  6. More axe grinders. The article quotes the discredited John Connors who didn’t “raise cancer concerns” but fabricated unusual cases of cancer to alarm the public.

    Dr. David Swann is more credible but he knows that he is free to speak up in Alberta (and he does without any repercussions).

    Margaret Sears testimony has been dismissed by various judges in different jurisdictions because she is not a medical doctor nor is she an expert in toxicology. So why is this unqualified person being quoted in Macleans?

    One can not endlessly invent spurious claims without evidence of any sort.

  7. Weibo Ludwig was right.

    • Jeez Emily, nothing makes you look more foolish then endorsing Weibo. I bet you believe childhood vavcinations cause autism too.

      • Weibo said it caused illness…..doctors say the same thing.

  8. First, family medicine and epidemiology are separate specialties. One deals with individual patients, one deals with populations.

    Second, the fact that two things often happen at the same time, or in a regular sequence, doesn’t mean that one causes the other. if there is a cause-and-effect relationship, it will take a good deal of time and repeated studies by different researchers to show it. The qualifications (and the effect of any conflicting interests) of the researchers will also be evaluated.

    Third, most physicians are slow to embrace the new and revolutionary. A new idea has to be thoroughly challenged and tested before it’s accepted as something other than “snake oil” or “cold fusion”. Some examples within my lifetime: AIDS is now a recognized syndrome with a recognized cause and recognized treatments. Ulcers are now treated with antibacterial drugs. Liberation therapy for MS is still under investigation. Homeopathy is largely discredited and certain dangers are recognized.

  9. I think I see Dr. Neil Young’s next tour theme.