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Oil sands pollutants contaminate traditional First Nations' foods: report

A picnic table overlooks Syncrude's Mildred Lake oil sands upgrader north of Fort McMurray, Alberta on Tuesday, May 27, 2014.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

New scientific research has found that wild-caught foods in northern Alberta have higher-than-normal levels of pollutants the study associates with oil sands production, but First Nations are already shifting away from their traditional diets out of fears over contamination.

The research, to be officially released on Monday, found contaminants in traditional foods such as muskrat and moose, and that aboriginal community members feel less healthy than they did a generation ago, according to an executive summary obtained by The Globe and Mail.

Titled Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands for the Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Northern Alberta, the report will add to calls for sober second thought to ramping up oil sands production. The executive summary of the research said both First Nations living downstream of the megaprojects want a greater say in the pace of development and environmental regulations.

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"Substantial employment opportunities are generated by the oil sands. Yet, this development, as well as upstream hydro projects, compromises the integrity of the environment and wildlife, which, in turn, adversely affects human health and well-being," the research paper said.

Funding for the report was provided by the National First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program, Health Canada, and the two First Nation communities. The report was prepared by University of Manitoba environmental science professor Stéphane McLachlan.

The report said community members are eating less "country" foods because they have been warned off it. The study said as a result, human exposure rates to these contaminants "were generally not of concern, reflecting the relatively low consumption of country foods." However, study participants are increasingly relying on more expensive and sometimes less-healthy store-bought foods.

In the study, wildlife was tested for environmental contaminants, including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some of the findings found arsenic levels were high enough in muskrat, duck and moose that they were of concern for young children. Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys, especially for children.

The Athabasca Chipewyan, one of the First Nations behind the report, have already drawn worldwide attention to their health and environmental concerns about the oil sands this year.

But the relationship they have with the oil sands is far from black and white. Chief Allan Adam has said the community earns $270-million in annual revenue from industrial contracts with oil sands producers.

David Schindler, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, said in an interview Sunday that there have been a number of recent reports that suggest health problems for local communities.

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The freshwater ecologist pointed to two Environment Canada reports: one showing high levels of mercury in snow within 50 kilometres of Fort McMurray, and one showing increasing levels of mercury in bird's eggs in the Athabasca River delta.

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