Ethical hypocrisy: Windmills, the tar sands and human health

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Dr. O'Connor speaking at a 2010 rally for public health care.

So the feds have decided to launch an investigation into potential health effects of ... windmills!

This despite the paucity of evidence of any adverse impact on human health, and the lack of supporting expert medical opinion. Fair enough, though -- who knows -- there may well be some real basis for the concerns of those claiming ill-health from exposure to these structures. Anecdotal evidence frequently serves as a reason for investigation of issues like this. No argument from me. "There but for the Grace of...!

However, what about Fort Chipewyan, the community downstream from the tar sands? The oldest settlement in Alberta, and a very traditional Indigenous community.

I'll give you a quick overview.

The residents there had spent years trying to bring attention to the changes they'd noticed in the staples of their subsistence -- fish especially -- and in the water of the Athabasca River and Lake.

These changes were dramatic -- and were impacting significantly the traditional lifestyle that about 80 per cent of the community pursued. I began providing medical services in Fort Chip in 2000, and it slowly dawned on me that there were concerning medical conditions, beyond what I would have expected to find, in type and number, present in Fort Chip.

The authorities immediately responsible as stewards of the environment and health, Health Canada, Alberta Health, and Alberta Environment, denied the existence of any problems -- without doing any investigation. In fact, one Health Canada physician, on his arrival in Chip, took a swig from a mug of tap water he'd filled at the Nursing Station, turned, and stated: "see, there’s nothing wrong with the water here"! I guess that must count as an investigation, of sorts! That was 2006.

Years prior to this, a baseline study of the health of people downstream form the tar sands had been recommended in a report -- the Northern River Basin Study -- by Dr David Schindler et al. No action was taken.

So, following the water-in-the-mouth analysis, media interest in the story of Fort Chip mushroomed. It seemed there may be a connection between the upstream tar sands development and the health problems Chip. Undoubtedly, pressure from the media helped to keep the spotlight on the issue. A series of reports, from independent scientific studies -- Drs Timoney, Lee, Kelly, Schindler, to name a few -- exposed how the Alberta and Federal authorities grossly misrepresented the impact the tar sands developments were/are having on the environment.

The illnesses, including rare cancers, in Fort Chip, needed to be investigated. Under pressure, the Alberta government dispatched the Alberta Cancer Board, in 2008, to analyze the cancer types and numbers, which they did.

In Feb 2009, they released their report, and aside from disagreeing with the number of cholangiocarcinoma cases I quoted, supported the facts -- Ft Chip indeed did and does have a disproportionate cancer burden. The Board recommended a thorough health study be undertaken.

Over three years later, and nothing has happened!

Would Fort Chip have been better served if a huge wind farm had been present upstream?


Dr. John O'Connor is Director of Health and Human Services at Fort McKay, he is also a Board member of the Council of Canadians, a member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment as well as a Clinical Lecturer at the University of Alberta in the Department of Family Medicine.


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