A generation ago, Lake Athabasca was clear and clean enough that Fort
Chipewyan residents drew their drinking water straight from it, and thought
nothing about dipping a cup over the side of a canoe during hunting trips. Those
days are long gone, as industrial development -- particularly the explosive
growth of the oil sands -- accelerates along the Athabasca River, the main tributary
of Lake Athabasca.
The belief -- only that, for the moment -- in Fort Chipewyan is that something
from the oil sands is contaminating the Athabasca and ravaging the health of
the people who live downstream.
Nearly four years after the hamlet's only doctor first voiced concern about
the cluster of cancer cases, the provincial and federal governments have launched
a joint investigation into the illness that seems to be sweeping Fort Chipewyan.
The Athabasca and Mikisew people are waiting for answers from those officials,
but in the meantime, they have their own explanations.
"It is speculation to say it's the water. But for me, it's common sense,"
said Lorraine Mercredi, who bought a water-filtration system after her aunt
and a cousin, still in his early thirties, died from cancers of the digestive
tract. Other Fort Chipewyan residents, too afraid to drink from their taps at
all, are paying to have bottled water flown in.
When Ivy Simpson was diagnosed as having cervical cancer, her doctors did not
tell her what had made her ill. But the Fort Chipewyan resident, who now lives
about 250 kilometres to the south in Fort McMurray, has no doubt about what
caused her cancer.
"It had to have been something from the water, air or land," said
the 27-year-old, who was just 17 when she contracted cervical cancer, a disease
usually found in much older women.
Her extended family in Fort Chipewyan has been hit hard by cancer. Her mother,
Mary Simpson, said a cousin, Warren, got testicular cancer. An aunt died of
uterine cancer in the late 1980s, and Ivy Simpson's 41-year-old sister has terminal
Like many in Fort Chipewyan, the Simpsons began to suspect their surroundings
were making them sick after the town's fly-in doctor, John O'Connor, began to
push for an official inquiry into what he saw as an astonishingly high number
of cancer cases.
A few months after arriving in 2001, Dr. O'Connor noticed a set of disturbing
symptoms in a patient: yellowed eyes, fatigue and abdominal discomfort. It was
disturbing not only because it pointed to cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and deadly
cancer of the bile duct. The symptoms were all too familiar for Dr. O'Connor,
whose father died of the cancer 13 years ago in Ireland.
"I know a lot about it, but I never expected to see it again," he
said. "Without treatment, you're dead in about a month. My dad lasted six
weeks." Dr. O'Connor said at least three residents of Fort Chipewyan, and
likely another two, have died of the disease within the past five years. Statistically
speaking, there should be only one case for every 100,000 people, and none at
all for a community the size of Fort Chipewyan, he said.
There are similar patterns with other serious diseases. Since 2001, he has
diagnosed five cases of leukemia and four cases of lymphoma, a cancer that originates
in the lymphatic system. In the past year, Dr. O'Connor has treated at least
six patients with Graves' disease, an immune-system ailment, and has seen entire
families stricken with lupus, another serious autoimmune disease. So far this
year, six people have died of colon cancer, the youngest just 33 years old,
the doctor said.
He visits a number of northern communities in his weekly rounds, and no other
has been hit by the kind of cancer cluster seen in Fort Chipewyan. Those other
communities do not draw their drinking water from the Athabasca River or the
lake, however. Faced with those seemingly unique numbers, Dr. O'Connor said
he cannot help but believe the cancers in Fort Chipewyan are linked to industrial
development elsewhere on the water system. The pulp-and-paper industry is a
possibility, he thinks. So is Uranium City, Sask., on the northeast shore of
Lake Athabasca, where mining activity ceased years ago, but contamination lingers.
Then there are the oil sands, which have been producing bitumen using river
water for decades and are heading into a massive expansion.
Much of the province's future prosperity hinges on that growth, a reality Dr.
O'Connor believes at least partly explains why it took more than three years
for the provincial and federal governments to launch a formal investigation.
Now that investigation is under way. A team of doctors from Edmonton employed
by the federal government was in Fort Chipewyan last week laying the groundwork
for a rigorous statistical study aimed at determining whether the hamlet has
an unusual incidence of cancer, and if it does, what is causing it. Health Canada,
Alberta's Health and Wellness department and the Alberta Cancer Board are all
taking part in the investigation, the only one of its kind in the province.
"We take these concerns very seriously," said Salim Samanani of Health
Canada's First Nations and Inuit Health branch.
Alberta Health and Wellness Minister Iris Evans said government officials "are
all over" the alarming medical concerns coming out of the northern Albertan
community. She said her ministry is working with the provincial cancer board
on an "intensive analysis" of the problem.
Investigators say it will take up to three months to assemble statistics, in
part because the team will have to acquire all the data, including confirmations
of Dr. O'Connor's diagnoses. One of the first tasks will be to determine whether
the massing anecdotal evidence of a rising number of cancer cases is borne out
by statistics; whether there is, in fact, a cancer cluster. Another major difficulty
is that the kinds of cancers cropping up in Fort Chipewyan have multiple causes.
Ms. Simpson believes environmental contaminants made her ill, although the main
risk factor for cervical cancer is the human papilloma virus. Another possible
contributor is a diet poor in fresh fruits and vegetables, a near certainty
in Fort Chipewyan, where a head of cauliflower costs $7.
Dr. Samanani of First Nations and Inuit Health said he is sure of at least
one thing: the drinking water, which is filtered through modern treatment facilities,
"I felt quite comfortable coming in and drinking the water," Dr.
Samanani said, later draining a tall glass of tap water in the staff kitchen
of Fort Chipewyan's nursing station.
However, it is equally certain that residue from the oil sands is being pumped
into the Athabasca River. The oil-sands industry uses water to separate bitumen,
which can be turned into crude oil, from sand. Some operators then treat portions
of that water and return it to the river, where it eventually flows into Lake
Athabasca -- and the water supply of Fort Chipewyan.
Suncor Energy Inc., the oldest oil-sands operator, does discharge "process
water" into the river. However, the company emphasizes that it has dramatically
reduced in recent years the overall volume of water it returns to the Athabasca
as it has improved its recycling efforts, and that the hydrocarbons and other
chemicals that are in the water are far below Alberta's limits.
With a report from Katherine Harding