Broken trust: Alberta family without answers about oil sands’ health impact, When an Alberta mom met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie about oil-sands emissions pollution, his advice stunned her by Mychaylo Prystupa, February 2, 2014, Vancouver Observer
At an unprecedented Alberta Energy Regulator hearing for health complaints about oil sands emissions in the Peace River region, area resident Karla Labrecque spoke of the myriad obstacles she faced when talking to doctors about her symptoms, believed to be caused by oil pollution. Following a troubling year when Labrecque suffered dizziness, fatigue, and migraines that felt like a “2-by-4” to her head, she said she decided to get herself checked out with a doctor in 2011. Her nasal passages were “overwhelmingly red”, and she had recently fallen down the stairs while doing laundry. Her two kids and husband Alain had similar woes. The family lived just 500 metres from four bitumen tanks that reeked of sulphur.
Oil fumes so painful, families forced to move
When she finally met with an ear-throat-and-nose specialist in Grande Prairie who diagnosed her with having airborne pollution, his advice stunned her. “He just told me to move,” Labrecque said under oath at the hearing that ended Friday. “He said… you are just a small, little bolt in this huge robot, and you don’t matter. Move.”
The industry-funded oversight agency heard two weeks of testimony from Peace River residents with health concerns about odours and emissions from the oil sands industry. Labrecque claims the specialist who made the provocative comments was Dr. Mel Delacruz. The Vancouver Observer called Dr. Delacruz at his medical office Friday, but he said he was instructed by his lawyer not to speak about the matter, and hung up the phone.
Unfortunately for Labrecque, her alleged encounter with the doctor was only the start of a sad journey through Alberta’s medical system that ultimately failed to help her know the truth about what was making her, her husband Alain, and two little children sick. The grain-farming family had previously enjoyed northern Alberta’s big skies, fresh air, and the opportunities that came from hard work. But fearing for their health, the family relocated to Smithers, B.C.
Doctors afraid to speak out
An environmental health expert hired by the Alberta government testified at the hearing last week that many Alberta doctors are afraid to speak out against the oil sands. The industry has pumped billions in investment into the region in recent years. Labrecque said Dr. Delacruz spoke to her about the troubles that can come to doctors who connect oil sands to health problems. “[Dr. Delacruz] then proceeded to tell me about patient-doctor confidentiality, and how there was a doctor in Fort Mac who got [dragged] through the courts,” Labrecque told the hearing.
Labrecque says the specialist was talking about Fort McMurray’s Dr. John O’Connor – a family physician who was threatened with having his license taken away for sounding the alarm about cancer rates near the oil sands several years ago. The Alberta Medical Association rallied to his defence. Dr. John O’Connor, a physician who raised concerns about the high cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan downstream of the oil sands in 2006. On Wednesday, Dr. O’Connor said doctors need to be “advocates”.
“It is a very tough position to have to take… to suggest that the goose that lays the golden egg might be causing some health issues.”
“To question the possible connection between… health issues and exposure to pollutants from industry has been a no-go area for so many years,” said Dr. O’Connor.
Broken trust: Alberta family without answers about oil sands’ health impact
Following Labrecque’s encounter with her specialist, odours and emissions near her home did not improve. So under the advice of an Alberta Health Services representative, she went to a hospital in Peace River to late 2012 to get a “toxicity test.” She claims the ER doctor initially declined her. “When [the ER doctor] said ‘you can’t do [the] test’… it’s like, where do you go from there?” she asked. But under pressure from Labrecque and her husband, the ER doctor obtained higher approval for the test. He returned to sample her blood.
‘Useless’ blood test
Labrecque was floored to later learn the blood test she received was “practically useless” for determining petrochemical contamination. O’Connor and one other physician contacted by the Vancouver Observer reviewed Karla’s blood test results (with her permission), and both said, the test could not possibly have revealed oil emission chemicals.
Labrecque was also handed a questionnaire at the hospital designed specifically for patients with “hydrocarbon odour / emissions” concerns. Trouble was, the form had almost no questions about hydrocarbon exposures. Instead, the form quizzed on many other factors, such as medication, stress, travel history, etc. “They were asking me about depression [and such] – it was like they were trying to blame it on something else, and not the [oil] emissions,” she said. Dr. O’Connor says the Alberta Health questionnaire seemed more intent on ruling out the oil sands industry. “I don’t know why in a setting where someone is exposed to petrochemical emissions – that that isn’t a central focus of a form or questionnaire like that.”
“You don’t ignore the elephant – you include it.”
Alberta Health spokesperson Timothy Wilson said the form’s 32nd and final question did include an opportunity to list synthetic chemicals exposures, and was a “useful tool” for doctors.
Protection of industry alleged
O’Connor says he hopes these medical obstacles are not part of a “deliberate directive” to prevent the truth about oil sands’ health effects. “My experience… strongly suggests to me that government does not want to know [and] is not interested in knowing what’s going on,” said Dr. O’Connor. Now out of province, Labrecque says she’s no closer to confirming what, if any, of the oil-emissions chemicals caused her family harm. “We don’t know the long term effects [on my kids] – if this is going to hurt them 10 years down the road,” said Labrecque. The Alberta Energy Regulator completed its hearings Friday, and has committed to reporting recommendations by March 31. [Emphasis added]