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Northern doctor won't shut up
ppeggy | November 12, 2007 at 08:43 amby
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Dr. John O'Connor first suspected something was wrong a few years ago after discovering a rare form of cancer in a small northern Alberta community of 1,200 people.
He recognized the illness since it was the same one that had claimed the life of his father in Ireland more than 15 years earlier. He had never expected to see it again and was alarmed to find it in at least five different patients.
But the family physician never anticipated that speaking out about his concerns would land him in a career-threatening struggle against the federal government with his medical licence on the line.
"Looking back, it's been a nightmare for me," O'Connor said in an interview. "It's just something I never expected in a million years. I just wanted to be the family doctor that I was when I went up there."
The community of Fort Chipewyan is the oldest European settlement in the province, and it's also a few hundred kilometres downstream from Fort McMurray, at the heart of Alberta's oil patch and tarsands operations. But government officials from Health Canada responded to O'Connor's health warnings with a complaint to the Alberta College of Physicians that accused the doctor, who has practiced in Fort McMurray since 1993, of raising undue alarm.
Federal Health Minister Tony Clement is defending his government's complaint.
"Health Canada physicians acted as they are ethically obligated to act," Clement's spokeswoman Rita Smith wrote in an e-mail.
While a series of government studies have concluded there's no need to be alarmed about potential toxins and carcinogens spilling into the Athabasca River from oilsands operations and pulp mills, a new independent report released last week has discovered serious flaws with the government research and appears to confirm some of O'Connor's greatest fears.
"The findings of my study indicate that there is cause for concern in that there are contaminants that are in the food supply that are associated with cancer and types of cancer observed in community," said Kevin Timoney, an Alberta ecologist and statistician who released his report to the Fort Chipeywan community last Wednesday.
"Certainly these contaminants come from tarsands. Now the question is how much of the contaminant amount comes from human activity versus natural sources, and that we can't answer yet."
But the report concluded that the contaminants have been on the rise since the start of major industrial development in the region in the 1960s. The contaminants are not only getting into deformed fish with bulging eyeballs, but they are spreading throughout the food chain in moose and muskrats as well, the report says.