Health officials in Alberta confirmed Friday that there are more cases of cancer than expected in a small aboriginal village downstream from the massive oil sands plants, but they said there was no cause for residents to be alarmed.
People in the village of Fort Chipewyan, a one-time trading post on the northeast shore of Lake Athabasca, say oil sands developments may be responsible for rare bile-duct cancers first spotted by a doctor in the community in 2006.
Those complaints sparked a study by Alberta health authorities, which released the results Friday.
The study said that while the incidence of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma was higher than expected, only two of the six cases reported by the community's doctor were confirmed, while three were other types of cancer, and one was not cancer at all.
However, the study found 47 individuals in the community had 51 different cancers over the 1995 to 2006 study period, more than the 39 cases health officials had expected to find.
"The overall findings show no cause for alarm," said Tony Fields, a vice-president at Alberta Health Services. "But they do, however, point to the need for some more investigation."
The village is about 260 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, where a number of projects have been established to mine the oil sands, as part of the process that converts tar-like bitumen into synthetic crude oil.
Lake Athabasca is fed by the Athabasca River, which flows through the project region, and earlier studies have found unsafe levels of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon in the lake's fish, sediments, water and wildlife.
While oil sands producers use large amounts of water to produce the crude, contaminated wastes are kept on site and are not released.
The results of the study did not assuage community officials, who say they have not been provided with a copy of the results.
"We haven't seen it," said Steve Courtoreille, a councillor with the Mikisew Cree First Nation and chairman of the Nunee Health Board Society. "We've asked for it so our doctors can critique but they caught us off guard. It's not going to show the real picture … there is a problem here."
Alberta Health Services said the study's findings were reviewed by independent experts and two Canadian aboriginal researchers.