08/19/2011 05:30 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Cancer Rates Downstream From Oil Sands To Be Probed

A long-awaited Alberta Health study into the health of people living downstream from the oilsands, where cancer rates are higher than normal, appears to be finally going ahead.

Concerns were first raised in 2006 about elevated cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan, about 220 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. A provincial government study released in 2009 confirmed the trend and recommended more analysis into possible causes.

"For various reasons, and none of them really sort of satisfactory, nothing has happened — this is over 2½ years later," said John O'Connor, the family doctor who drew widespread attention five years ago for alleging Fort Chipewyan had a high rate of a rare bile-duct cancer.

"But in the interim, we've had a lot of scientific studies that have revealed the lack of monitoring and the lack of due diligence on the part of governments, both federal and provincial, in looking after the environment," O'Connor said Thursday.

The study will investigate residents of Fort Chipewyan as well as Fort MacKay, about 175 kilometres to the south, since the communities are tightly linked and people often move from the former to the latter, O'Connor said. Researchers will try to determine whether contaminants from oilsands developments in the Athabasca River are harming people.

A 414-page report by an expert panel of the Royal Society of Canada concluded last December that "there is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oilsands reaching Fort Chipewyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates."

When it recommended a long-term study in 2009, the Alberta Cancer Board concluded the cancer rates were 30 per cent higher than expected. Other scientific reports have shown high levels of toxic pollutants in the Athabasca River.

The chief of the Fort Chipewyan Mikisew Cree said he's approaching the study with caution.

"I want to see some results, but at the same time I don't want my community to be getting our hopes up and at the end of the day finding out that we're not any closer to what's causing these various cancers," Steve Courtoreille said.

Alberta Health and Wellness said it's in discussions about the study with the communities, and a final agreement still needs to be concluded on how the health assessment will proceed.