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Health concerns deserve priority

Posted on January 29, 2014 by Lethbridge Sun Times

Science has long known about the link between environmental toxins and human health. That’s why there are regulations governing everything from household consumer products to the heavy industry sector.

But a report which came to light recently suggests a hesitance on the part of some Alberta doctors to consider if their patients’ health conditions could have been caused by long-term exposure to petrochemicals.

Opposition politicians raised the issue in the legislature this week, voicing concern about the report which was prepared for the Alberta Energy Regulator in connection with a hearing taking place in Peace River. The hearing involves complaints by landowners in the area about odours that they blame on the local oil industry.

The report in question was prepared by Margaret Sears, a doctor in chemical engineering who has often testified on environmental contamination. As the Canadian Press story in the Jan. 21 Lethbridge Herald indicated, Sears’ report noted that although most health professionals believe petrochemical emissions affect health, doctors in Peace River seemed reluctant to diagnose a link between exposure to fumes from heated bitumen and the patients’ chronic symptoms which include severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion and vomiting, to name a few.

Dr. John O’Connor, a doctor who was disciplined in 2007 for raising cancer concerns in the northern Alberta oilpatch town of Fort Chipewyan, told the Canadian Press he wasn’t surprised by the hesitance of the medical community. O’Connor was later vindicated after the Alberta Cancer Board found elevated levels of four different cancers in the community.

The report raises concerns, and with good reason. We count on doctors to have their patients’ best interests in mind when dealing with their health problems. It’s disconcerting to consider the possibility that some doctors might be hesitant to follow medical leads that could implicate the oilpatch as a likely cause of those problems.

The Alberta economy is largely built on the oil industry and that industry shouldn’t be unfairly demonized. By the same token, if emissions from the industry are adversely affecting the health of citizens, that information shouldn’t be covered up.

The report’s suggestion of the need for more research on the impact of oil and gas emissions on people and communities is well worth heeding. As Crowsnest Pass doctor Allan Garbutt, president of the Alberta Medical Association, noted in the Canadian Press story, it would help with development of strong policies.

Further study of the health effects of oil industry emissions makes good sense. There seems to be money available for all kinds of inconsequential research that has little practical value; certainly money can be found for research into this area that often pits citizens against the juggernaut petrochemical industry.

Some firm, unbiased research would go a long way toward helping many Albertans who live in oilpatch communities get to the bottom of their health problems. And it would also help with establishing some policy guidelines to protect people’s health in the future.

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