New Study: Alberta’s tar sands leading source of air pollution in North America, Tens of thousands of people living within reach breathing elevated levels of fine particles linked in previous studies to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes

[Refer also to:

Scientists Just Discovered Exactly What Air Pollution Does To Your Arteries by Alejandro Davila Fragoso, May 24, 2016, Think Progress

Air pollution has been linked to heart disease for years, prompting concern as well as some skepticism, as the physiological steps showing a cause-and-effect have gone less understood. But now, a multi-year study has for the first time documented that air pollution thickens blood and hardens arteries, a condition that causes cardiovascular problems like heart attacks and strokes. [Time to say goodbye to living in Alberta?]

March 12, 2014: Cochrane Interpipeline Gas Plant NW of Calgary

Video clip by FrackingCanada Fracking Rocky View County: A company trying to burn off chemicals and waste gases after a frac job.

“What’s new here is the linkage between air pollution and actual evidence of progression of atherosclerosis, the underlying disease process that leads to most [heart] attacks and strokes,” Joel Kaufman, lead author and University of Washington professor, told ThinkProgress. “The study provides important new information on how pollution affects the main biological process that leads to heart disease.”

The decade-long study, published Tuesday in The Lancet, found that Americans living in areas with more polluted air suffer from accelerated rates of atherosclerosis — at times rates about 20 percent higher than those living in less polluted areas, Kaufman said. This harm to arteries may stem from air pollution triggering cell inflammation, he said, and affect the white blood cells that are involved in protecting the body against both infectious disease and foreign invaders.

Atherosclerosis refers to plaque building up inside arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart and other parts of the body. The disease disrupts the flow of blood, posing serious cardiovascular complications. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, calcium, and other substances found in the blood, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Atherosclerosis is also common as it occurs in 80 to 90 percent of Americans over the age of 30, and leads to cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in people over 45.

For years, scientists have been successful in associating air pollution and vehicle-related emissions with overall mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cardiovascular disease, to name a few. They have even been able to calculate mortality figures linked to air pollution. Just in February, the Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study, the most comprehensive international effort to measure epidemiological trends worldwide, calculated that about 5.5 million people prematurely died in 2013 because of indoor and outdoor air pollution. And before that, in September of 2015, another study found that outdoor air pollution kills 3.3 million people worldwide, a number set to double in the next 35 years if emissions continue unabated.

… In turn, Tuesday’s paper is considered the most in-depth study of air pollution exposures ever applied to a large study group to examine pollution and cardiovascular health. “By following adults over 10 years, we were able to ask if people who live in places with more pollution have a faster thickening of their blood vessels over time,” Sara Adar, author and assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, told ThinkProgress via email.

Funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health, the study was based on more than 6,000 people with no history of clinical cardiovascular disease in six states. To make sure that it was all encompassing, researchers recruited middle-aged and senior men and women from four ethnic groups: white, Hispanic, African American, and Chinese living in different corners of the country. They then conducted body scans to assess participants’ arteries as they calculated, via air monitors and other methods, each participant’s exposure to PM 2.5 — a pollutant that comes primarily from the burning of fuels — as well as exposure to nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, and black carbon.

By the end of the study, researchers were able to track more than 3,600 people and realized that those living in more polluted places like Los Angeles suffered from worse calcium plaque in their arteries. Calcified plaques in the coronary arteries have been consistently associated with cardiovascular disease.

“These effects seem to come across people regardless of their race or ethnicity, regardless of their socioeconomic status,” said Kaufman, who now aims to use the data set to quantify the influence that air pollution has on heart attack rates.

Another major finding of the study is that air pollution at levels below regulatory standards also accelerates the progression of atherosclerosis.[Emphasis added]

Pollution From Canadian Oil Sands Vapor Is Substantial, Study Finds by Ian Austen, May 25, 2016, The New York Times

The amount of pollution created by vapor from Canada’s oil sands, which contributes to climate change, ranks on par with most major cities in North America, according to a new study by the country’s environmental regulator that was published on Wednesday.

While the connection between the oil sands’ carbon emissions and climate change is well documented, the study, which was funded by the regulator, Environment and Climate Change Canada, and appeared in Nature, is the first to track the vapor produced in the process and the extent of the pollution that results. It also adds the particularly weighty voice of the Canadian government to the debate.

In recent months, the government, under the leadership of the new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has reversed course on global climate change. While the country’s economy depends heavily on resources like the oil sands, Mr. Trudeau has made climate change a priority on his agenda.

The study was published just as several major oil sands operations were trying to reopen after being evacuated because of a massive wildfire in the Fort McMurray, Alberta area. Earlier efforts to restart operations were abandoned after the fire swung north and reached the perimeter of Suncor’s and Syncrude’s large mines and plants. Large fire breaks prevented any damage, however.

The study takes a close look at what happens to the tarlike bitumen of the oil sands. Vapor from the bitumen is released into the air when it is dug up in open pit mines and later as the oil is separated out.

Once in the atmosphere and exposed to sunlight, those vapors mix with other chemicals to become particles known as secondary organic aerosols, or S.O.A.s. Those aerosols, which form a major component of smog, are considered a risk to human health.

John Liggio, a scientist with the air quality research division of Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the rate at which the oil sands created those particles was unexpected.

“The chemistry tells us this should happen,” said Mr. Liggio, who is based in Toronto. “We were surprised by the extent. It’s greater than Houston.”

The concentration of oil refineries around Houston makes it a particularly large source of the particles. But Mr. Liggio said the oil sands were rivaled by only the largest metropolitan areas, like Los Angeles, in North America when it came to creating the particles. Vehicle exhaust and electrical generation are the main sources of the particles in cities.

The paper found that the rate of particle production related to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico was about the same as that of the oil sands. “But the spill lasted only for a few months; the oil sands has been operated for decades,” Mr. Liggio said. He added that the oil sands vapor also converts more easily into polluting particles than fumes from lighter grades of oil.

Shao-Meng Li, another Environment Canada scientist and co-author of the study, said the S.O.A. particles tended to lower temperatures by reflecting energy back toward the sun. All atmospheric particles, he said, are know to harm cardiovascular and respiratory health.

“This is all new information for us,” said Terry Abel, the director of oil sands at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. [REALLY?] “It’s one more piece of information about what’s happening in the environment in and around these facilities.” He said more research would be needed to determine the impact of the particles. [More research? Ever more. Why? To enable the toxic health harms to continue, unabated?]

The study was based on data gathered by specialized instruments on aircraft that flew around the major oil sands sites north of Fort McMurray. The researchers want to focus their future efforts on determining how and where most of the vapor is released. Other scientists are also studying the effects of the particles after they make their inevitable descent back to earth.

The researchers on the study also want to look at whether oil sands projects that use underground injections of steam to release the bitumen are any better than those that use open-pit mining. While Mr. Liggio said limiting emissions from the plants that process the oils sands after they were dug up might be possible, what could be done with those mines was less clear.

“You can’t build a huge bubble over a huge open pit mine,” he said. [Emphasis added]

Oil sands found to be a leading source of air pollution in North America by Ivan Semeniuk, May 25, 2016, The Globe and Mail

A cloud of noxious particles brewing in the air above the Alberta oil sands is one of the most prolific sources of air pollution in North America, often exceeding the total emissions from Canada’s largest city, federal scientists have discovered.

The finding marks the first time researchers have quantified the role of oil-sands operations in generating secondary organic aerosols, a poorly understood class of pollutants that have been linked to a range of adverse health effects.

The aerosols are minute particles, roughly 1/10th the diameter of a human hair or less, that are created when chemical-laden vapours from the mining and processing of bitumen react with oxygen in the atmosphere and are transformed into solids that can drift on the wind for days.

While researchers have long thought that the oil sands must be a source of such particles, the new results, published Wednesday in the journal Nature, show that their impact on air quality is significant and of potential concern to communities that are downwind.

“It’s another aspect that can and probably should be considered,” in assessing the environmental footprint of Canada’s most productive oil region, said John Liggio, an atmospheric chemist with Environment and Climate Change Canada and lead author on the study.

The result adds to the known impacts of the oil sands, including as a source of carbon emissions which contribute to climate change.

Using an aircraft bristling with sophisticated sensors, Dr. Liggio and his colleagues flew back and forth repeatedly through the largely invisible plume of emissions that extends from the oil sands in order to record the concentrations of a wide range of pollutants. The measurements were made in the summer of 2013 and gathered during nearly 100 hours of flying time over the oil sands and adjacent boreal forest.

“It is exciting, I will say that. But it’s not for the faint of heart – or stomach,” Dr. Liggio said of the low-level flights he and his colleagues endured during the study.

The airborne data, supported by further work with computer models and laboratory experiments, show that secondary organic aerosols are formed in the atmosphere downwind of the oil sands at the rate of 45 to 84 tonnes a day. By comparison, Canada’s largest urban area, which is 10 times larger and includes Toronto and surrounding municipalities, generates 67 tonnes a day, much of it derived from car and truck exhaust.

The oil-sands aerosols are similar in abundance to those that U.S. researchers recorded rising from the massive oil spill caused by the Deepwater Horizon drilling-rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. But they are ever-present.

“The oil spill lasted a few months, and the Alberta oil-sand operations are an ongoing industrial activity,” said Joost de Gouw, a Colorado-based research physicist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who led the oil-spill measurements.

Dr. de Gouw called the Canadian team’s work “convincing” and added that air-quality researchers were becoming increasingly interested in the formation and effects of secondary organic aerosols, which constitute an increasing fraction of the air pollution generated in North America and Europe from industrial sources as sulphur emissions decrease.

“The take-away is that there’s more that’s emitted into the atmosphere than we’ve fully appreciated,” said Jeffrey Brook, an air-quality researcher with Environment and Climate Change Canada who participated in the oil-sands study. “There is a need to continue to improve our knowledge about where these emissions go.”

In 2014, the federal and provincial governments jointly issued standards for long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter. The emissions of secondary organic aerosols measured from the oil sands do not appear to exceed those long-term standards, but they do suggest that tens of thousands of people living within reach of the emissions are experiencing elevated levels of fine particles in the air they breathe.

Scientists are still trying to understand the complex health effects those particles can trigger when inhaled, but they have been linked in previous studies to lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

The work reveals a previously hidden impact from extracting unconventional oil, in Canada and elsewhere, such as Venezuela’s Orinoco Petroleum Belt.

The Nature study is also one of the most high-profile scientific papers to come out of Environment Canada’s air-quality research division in some years. Dr. Liggio and his colleagues responded directly to questions from The Globe and Mail without a lengthy waiting period for permission to conduct interviews and without government officials monitoring their calls. Such practices were mandatory under the Harper government whenever federal scientists were asked to speak to the press about their published research. [Emphasis added]

Study traces organic aerosol air pollution to oilsands production by The Canadian Press, May 25, 2016, Calgary Herald

A new study in the journal Nature finds that Alberta’s oilsands are one of the largest sources of organic aerosol air pollution in North America.

Data from airborne measurements over the bitumen-producing region in August 2013 found that oilsands production generates at least 45 to 84 tonnes per day of the tiny particulate matter — comparable to mega-cities such as Paris and Mexico City.

The study, whose lead authors are Environment Canada scientists, says secondary organic aerosol production should be taken into consideration when assessing the environmental effects of current and planned oilsands development. And it suggests heavy-oil extraction projects around the globe are likely large sources of this type of air pollution.

“The oilsands on its own as a global source is probably not very significant,” research scientist John Liggio of Environment Canada said in an interview Wednesday.

“But you have to keep in mind that extraction of viscous, heavy oil is happening all over the world. That’s the globalness of it. This type of process is expected to occur in multiple places, wherever you extract bitumen, heavy oil, and so on.”

Secondary organic aerosols are produced when volatile organic compounds interact with sunlight and other airborne chemicals to create tiny particles, which have been found to cause lung and heart problems, among other health effects.

The Nature study found low-volatility organic vapours from mined oilsands material is “directly responsible” for the majority of the observed secondary organic aerosols downwind from oilsands mining projects.

Multiple flights over the course of a month aboard a National Research Council aircraft and using mass spectrometers found differing plumes up to 100 kilometres downwind of oilsands projects.

And while other pollutants such as black carbon and sulphate aerosols dissipated as the plumes spread in width from 39 kilometres to 79 kilometres, the secondary organic aerosols, or SOAs, remained relatively steady, “indicating a significant SOA formation rate within these plumes, overriding the effect of dilution,” says the Nature article.

Shao-Meng Li, who co-authored the study with Liggio, said the study of SOAs has been done mostly in cities. This is the first time that the contribution from a specific industrial sector has been able to be measured, in significant part due to northern Alberta’s lack of other heavy industry or emission sources. [Who’s measuring frac (during fracing, not after) and associated pollution, like flares, illegal venting, and compessors/gas plants? Anyone?]

“Because of the uniqueness in that area (of Alberta), because of the non-source, if you will, we are able to thoroughly study and specifically say this is from that industrial source sector,” Li said in an interview. “In a big urban area, it’s a lot more difficult to isolate different sources.”

Air pollution rather than climate effects was the focus of the study, said the government research scientist, although particulate matter in the atmosphere is known to absorb solar radiation.

The researchers said they haven’t pinpointed the exact emission sources within oilsands projects, whether it be tailings ponds, the mines themselves or processing. They also don’t know what effect in situ oilsands extraction — which uses steam to melt bitumen deep underground and then pumps it to the surface — has on the formation of secondary organic aerosols.

And they’d like to test those oilsands plumes at a different time of year to see how seasonal changes affect the formation of SOAs.

“We’re hoping in the next couple of years we’ll have another study, in another season, looking at different sources, including in situ — and different parts of the facilities as well,” said Liggio. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to:

2015 05 10: Dr. John O’Connor Fired? Why? Alberta tarsands industry and Prentice-Harper government spite? Get rid of O’Connor before the long awaited tarsands-harm health study begins?

2014: Alberta doctor John O’Connor to meet U.S. senators in Washington, D.C., to discuss health effects of tarsands development

2014: Alberta workplace fatalities close to record numbers in 2013, led by a near doubling of fatalities caused by occupational disease

2014: New Study: Emissions may be two to three times higher, some pose cancer risk; Environmental health risks of Alberta tarsands probably underestimated

2014: Karla Labrecque’s doctor refused to do a blood test until he consults with a local politician; Mike Labrecque gets sick working for Baytex, Baytex lets him go: “You’re done.”

2014: Health report: some Alberta doctors refused to treat families exposed to toxic emissions by Baytex in Peace Country, one lab refused to process a test

2013: Fort Chipewyan rare cancer cases cry out for study; Fort Chipewyan councillor latest resident diagnosed with rare cancer, ‘How can this keep happening?’

2013: Promises promises promises, Alberta government “hopes” to finally have long promised environmental monitoring panel running by early 2014

2013: Air Pollution and Cancer Spikes linked in Alberta; Alberta’s Oil Legacy: Bad Air and Rare Cancers, Sickening carcinogens now saturate Industrial Heartland, study finds

2013: Carcinogens emitted from Canada’s main fossil fuel hub, study says, U.S. researchers say they found a high incidence of blood cancers among men in Alberta’s ‘Industrial Heartland.’
The study by researchers from UC Irvine and the University of Michigan also found a high incidence of blood cancers such as leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma among men in the area, compared with the rest of Alberta and Canada.

“When you get cancers that can be caused by the carcinogens we are seeing, that is reason for concern,” said Isobel J. Simpson, a lead author of the study and a researcher at UC Irvine’s chemistry department. … Three previous studies since 2009 have detected carcinogens in Alberta’s rivers and lakes, near where oil sands are mined. The latest study focuses on a site where oil sands are processed…. [Emphasis added]

2013: Alberta’s Oil Legacy: Bad Air and Rare Cancers, Sickening carcinogens now saturate the province’s Industrial Heartland, study finds
Ten known or probable carcinogens now saturate the air downwind of Alberta’s Upgrader Alley, the nation’s largest bitumen and hydrocarbon processing centre, while male blood cancers and leukemia in the region are the highest in the province. …

Alberta’s Industrial Heartland, located in a farming community, is comprised of 40 different chemical, petrochemical and bitumen processing operations spread out over a 582 km area near Fort Saskatchewan. … Nearby residents and farmers have complained about bad air, hydrogen sulfide pollution, massive flaring and poor regulation in what they also call “Cancer Alley” for years.

2013: Edmonton Air Carcinogens: Study Finds Alarming Levels Of Chemicals
Researchers went on to find blood cancers in men in the three counties surrounding the heartland to be consistently higher over the years 1997-2006 than for neighbouring counties. “It was the blood cancers in men that stood out statistically,” Simpson said. “That’s occurring in the same place as the emissions of chemicals known to cause those exact cancers.” [Emphasis added]

2013: Heavy Air Pollution in Canada Linked to Cancer Spikes in Rural Region
Despite the random times, though, all of the samples showed similar results; amounts of some dangerous volatile organic compounds were 6,000 times higher than normal. The contaminants that the researchers found included the carcinogens 1,3-butadiene and benzene and other airborne pollutants. Yet in order to see how these pollutants might be impacting the community, the researchers had to investigate a bit further. They gathered health records spanning more than a decade that showed the number of men with leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was greater in communities closest to the pollution plumes than in neighboring counties. [Emphasis added]

2013: Carcinogens detected in emissions downwind of ‘Industrial Heartland’  Longtime residents near industrial Alberta have struggled to bring attention to bad odors, health threats and related concerns.

2013: Air quality in the Industrial Heartland of Alberta, Canada and potential impacts on human health by Isobel J. Simpson, Josette E. Marrero, Stuart Batterman, Simone Meinardi, Barbara Barletta, and Donald R. Blake, Available to purchase online October 1, 2013, Atmospheric Environment


Alberta’s Industrial Heartland is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing center.

We characterize 77 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted in this region.

Dozens of VOCs, including carcinogens, were enhanced in the industrial plumes.

Sources include propene fractionation, diluent separation and bitumen processing.

Male hematopoietic cancer rates are higher in this region than elsewhere in Alberta.


The “Industrial Heartland” of Alberta is Canada’s largest hydrocarbon processing center, with more than 40 major chemical, petrochemical, and oil and gas facilities. Emissions from these industries affect local air quality and human health. This paper characterizes ambient levels of 77 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the region using high-precision measurements collected in summer 2010. Remarkably strong enhancements of 43 VOCs were detected, and concentrations in the industrial plumes were often similar to or even higher than levels measured in some of the world’s largest cities and industrial regions. For example maximum levels of propene and i-pentane exceeded 100 ppbv, and 1,3-butadiene, a known carcinogen, reached 27 ppbv. Major VOC sources included propene fractionation, diluent separation and bitumen processing. Emissions of the measured VOCs increased the hydroxyl radical reactivity (kOH), a measure of the potential to form downwind ozone, from 3.4 s−1 in background air to 62 s−1 in the most concentrated plumes. The plume value was comparable to polluted megacity values, and acetaldehyde, propene and 1,3-butadiene contributed over half of the plume kOH. Based on a 13-year record (1994–2006) at the county level, the incidence of male hematopoietic cancers (leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma) was higher in communities closest to the Industrial Heartland compared to neighboring counties. While a causal association between these cancers and exposure to industrial emissions cannot be confirmed, this pattern and the elevated VOC levels warrant actions to reduce emissions of known carcinogens, including benzene and 1,3-butadiene.

2013 08 31: Documentary on One: Undue Alarm

2013 Documentary on One Undue Alarm by RTE, on Alberta's Dr. John O'Connor snap

The biggest known oil reserve in the world. A tiny community of aboriginal Canadians. And a Limerick GP.

“Undue Alarm” is the story of how Dr. John O’Connor became a tireless campaigner on behalf of the First Nations communities – and found himself at the centre of a nationwide controversy in Canada.

When Limerick man Dr. John O’Connor went to Canada to practice medicine, he had little idea how his life would unfold.

The Alberta Oil Sands is the biggest industrial project on the planet. The area currently being mined for oil is the size of Ireland. Downstream from this on the shores of Lake Athabasca lies the tiny native community of Fort Chipewyan.

A breathtakingly beautiful place, ‘Fort Chip’ is on the far northeastern tip of the province of Alberta. In winter it is accessible by the ‘ice road’ – a road that is constructed from the harsh northern climate. In summer access is by way of a small plane.

Most of the people that live here are either Méti or First Nation – that is, native Canadians who have lived on the land through traditional methods of trapping, hunting, fishing and gathering berries for generations.

In 2000 Dr. O’Connor – or Dr. O as locals call him – became family physician to the tiny community of 1,200 people. When he started hearing concerns among the community about elevated rates of cancer in the community he did something that no outsider had done before: he listened to them. Then he spoke out about it. And what happened next is not what he expected.

A raft of professional complaints were made against him by the Canadian health authorities. And he would live with one of these – ‘causing undue alarm’ among the community – for five years.

Dr. O’Connor went from being a simple GP to a tireless campaigner and activist on behalf of native communities in Canada.

2012: Dr. David Schindler: Tar Sands Science “Shoddy”, “Must Change”

2010: Benzene Exposure Near the US Permissible Limit Is Associated With Sperm Aneuploidy

2007 05 19: Backlash against a whistle blower, For years, Dr. John O’Connor has made headlines by continually asking why natives near the oil sands have so much cancer ]

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