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Study finds oil sands creating ‘perfect storm’ of danger to flora, fauna and people

July 7, 2014 — 

 A study released today by a consortium of First Nation elders and environmental scientists has found that the Athabasca Oil Sands is detrimental to not only wildlife and vegetation, but also human health and well-being.

This project was a collaboration involving Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) in northern Alberta and scientists from the University of Manitoba and the University of Saskatchewan. The study used both scientific research and traditional knowledge around the complex environmental and health-related changes in the region, relying also on community-based participatory research.

Wildlife health was evaluated by veterinarians and tissues were tested for environmental contaminants including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Interviews were conducted with community members regarding ongoing impacts of upstream development as well as the consumption patterns of wild-caught foods. This allowed researchers to assess to what degree any changes in concern and consumption patterns were attributed to industry-associated declines in the environment. Changes in community health and wellbeing as well as likely causes of and responses to these changes were identified by group interviews and the body mapping of medical histories with community members.

The role of community based monitoring and cross-stakeholder engagement in building capacity among local youth and in addressing shortcomings in existing governmental monitoring plans was documented in the form of a Youth-Elder Camp. Finally, the impacts of the Oil Sands and other upstream development were communicated to community members and will be soon reaching a broader audience in the form of a feature-length documentary film. A news website has also been launched and a newsletter is now distributed across northern Alberta and NWT.

Stephane McLachlan, professor of environment and geography in the Clayton H. Riddell Faculty of Environment, Earth, and Resources, and coordinator of the Environmental Conservation Laboratory at the University of Manitoba, says: “This is the first health study that has been conducted in close collaboration with community members of Fort Chipewyan. The results are grounded in the environmental and health sciences, but also in local Traditional Knowledge. Unlike any of other studies, it has been actively shaped and controlled by both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation from the outset.”

Community participants were concerned about the ongoing decline of the health and wellbeing of their community. They generally viewed themselves as less healthy than the previous generation, and cited increasing levels of stress and depression but also other ailments such as allergies, asthma, hypertension and gastrointestinal illnesses. Most troubling is that 21.3 per cent of the community participants had experienced various kinds of cancer. Moreover, cancer occurrence was associated with employment in the Oil Sands as well as the consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish.

In general, the most important causes of these declines in health and wellbeing were identified as the Oil Sands, substance abuse and upstream agriculture. Widespread increases in type 2 diabetes and obesity were attributed to the increased consumption of processed foods from the South and declines in physical activity. Changes in behaviour were also identified as indirect responses to the impacts of upstream industrial development. The decline in health and well being was aggravated by poor risk communication with communities, poor-quality healthcare in Fort Chipewyan and an overdependence upon often-inadequate healthcare in urban centres to the South.

The study found that Oil Sands development has created “a perfect storm of decline and opportunity, a storm that places these and other downstream communities at progressively increased risk.” Thus, while researchers found that substantial employment opportunities are generated by the Oil Sands, this development “compromises the integrity of the environment and wildlife, which, in turn, adversely affects human health and well being.”

McLachlan cautions: “The results of this study, as they relate to human health and especially the increasing cancer rates, are alarming and should function as a dramatic wake up call to industry, government and communities alike.”

The executive summary of the study and its recommendations are available for viewing and downloading at:


For more information, contact:


Stephane McLachlan at: 204-293-4500 or email: stephane [dot] mclachlan [at] umanitoba [dot] ca

Susanne McCrea (communications) at: 204-297-0321 or email: borealaction [at] gmail [dot] com

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