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Monday, 28 October 2013

Oil sands health impacts. A misrepresented study leads to misperceptions of public health harm.

The oil and gas industry’s increase in intensive activity is garnering considerable attention.  Protests mount in BC, Ontario and other locations in opposition to pipelines, train derailments in Quebec and Alberta highlight long distance transport, fracking is at the centre of attention in civil disorder in New Brunswick, and central to the debate rests Canada’s lucrative and extensive oil sands where worldwide fears mount and sanctions are at times imposed because of claims of negative environmental impacts.

The oil sands debate centres around Fort McMurray.  A boomtown atmosphere that began in the late 70’s and has exploded again since the turn of the century as oil sand mining has become a key central source of petroleum products for North America supplying about 10% of North America’s daily needs

A tweet came over the wires “Carcinogens detected in emissions downwind of AB oil sands” speaking to a recent article from University of California at Irving (UCI) which supposedly noted  associations between high levels of contaminants and male cancer rates of persons living in the area.  UCI press release.  An astute observer might delve a bit further and ask the questions, why the alarms from California and not from Canadian health monitoring agencies?  Why did this group find a correlation when previous studies have not?  As the residents of the area are predominately Aboriginal, were ethical principles followed? 

It took only a few moments to discover the first important flaw.  While the press release referenced the tar sands – the study was actually undertaken in the Edmonton and surrounding areas where a wide variety of oil and gas production and refining occurs.   The distance exceeds that of Los Angeles to San Francisco and no self respecting Californian would suggest that what occurs in those two cities is in any way related.

Tracking the tweet back at #tarsands shows what can happen as stories pass through multiple hands. The original tweet on Oct 22 from a local reporter in Orange County alluded to the association with tar sands.  It reinforces that referencing the original  story, and those interested in the primary source might find reading the original material less than overwhelming Atmospheric Environment   in terms of methodology and findings.  (A small area was monitored. Sampling occurred over only 2 days.  The health data were historical ranging from 4-14 years prior to the air monitoring survey, ....) (In reviewing the full primary article, in fairness to the authors there was no attempt to represent the data for more than it was, nor was there reference in the article to implicate the oil sands.  The guilty party being the communications at UCI, with the authors being complacent with the misrepresentation)

Put the oil sands in perspective.  The Royal Society of Canada reviewed the impacts of the oil sands in 2010 in an extensive, objective, 3rd party report Royal Society full report.  Anyone interested in understanding the oil sand topic further   would be encouraged to read the report.  Its major authors including some of the pre-eminent environmental health specialists in Canada.  Because of it being the Royal Society, it lacked the glitz and media fanfare the UCI report is receiving.  The report was critical of many aspects of the industry and regulatory framework, but failed to conclusively identify human health threats from environmental exposure.  

While scepticism about the impacts of heavy oil mining in Northeastern Alberta are likely justified, and confirmed by some of the Royal Society report, objective research and objective reporting are critical to an informed and intellectual dialogue.

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