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; 10 day public hearing starts Tuesday

Alberta doctors avoid linking health issues to Tar Sands: report by Bob Weber, January 21, 2014, The Canadian Press in Common Sense Canadian

Doctors “afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry” by Andy Rowell, January 21, 2014,
Later today hearings are scheduled to begin on emissions and vapours emanating for the tar sands, specifically around the Peace River area. The hearings, which have been scheduled by the Albertan Energy Regulator, have come after years of complaints by local residents into the odours, which are so bad some families have been forced to move from their homes. Local residents have been complaining of symptoms such as severe headaches, dizziness, sinus problems, vomiting, muscle spasms and fatigue, amongst others.

But we do not know how badly the tar sands are really impacting people’s health. This is because according to a report commissioned specifically for the hearings by a public health specialist, some local doctors are reluctant to treat patients who draw connections between the tar sands industry and their personal health problems. The report, prepared by Dr Margaret Sears, concludes that: “There were reports from various sources that physicians would not diagnose a relationship between bitumen exposures and chronic symptoms.”

“Physicians are quite frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry,”
she adds.

And it gets worse. For those individuals who suggested there was a “connection” between their health problems and the tar sands, Sears records how “Physician care was refused … and that analytical services were refused by an Alberta laboratory when told that the proposed analysis was to investigate exposure to emissions related to bitumen extraction.

Locals are arguing that the regulator must force the industry to capture the emissions: “The best result possible is that they make some regulations to get companies to capture their vapours,” believes Alain Labrecque, who has had to vacate his farm after suffering numerous symptoms including headaches, dizziness, fatigue and memory loss. His family only started experiencing symptoms in 2011, after Baytex Energy purchased nearly 50 wells and in the area and started heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. “There is definitely a regulatory gap,” Labrecque argues “We just want more accountability. We want the regulator to take on a greater role, and have regulations in place so they can enforce them, and just provide more accountability to industry.”

Baytex, for its part, predictably argues that “there are no human health impacts associated with the emissions from our projects.”

The Labrecques have also now filed an injunction against Baytex to force the company to stop operating. The hearing though won’t be heard until March. [Emphasis added]

Report finds doctors reluctant to link oil sands with health issues, Residents around oil sands developments in Canada blame poor health on oil extraction, but doctors fear retribution  by Peter Moskowitz, January 20, 2014, Al Jazeera
A new government inquiry into a wave of sickness in Alberta, Canada, suggests that residents’ conditions may be linked to Canada’s controversial oil sands developments. The inquiry also finds that area doctors may be afraid to speak out when patients suggest that the oil developments could be the cause of their health problems, according to the Edmonton Journal.

The survey of doctors was conducted by Dr. Margaret Sears, a toxicology expert hired by the Alberta Energy Regulator. Sears and other experts were tasked with analyzing the health effects of the oil sands operations in preparation for a 10-day government hearing to address residents’ health complaints around the Peace River oil sands, Canada’s third largest oil sands development.

For the past two years, since Canadian company Baytex Energy began drilling dozens of wells to extract oil-rich bitumen around Peace River, a remote and sparsely populated community in northern Alberta, residents have complained of, “powerful, gassy smells and symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue,” according to the Toronto StarShell also owns wells in the area. …

“Communications with public health officials and medical professionals revealed a universal recognition that petrochemical emissions affect health; however, this was countered by a marked reluctance to speak out,” wrote Sears. Sears concludes that doctors’ reluctance stems from a lack of information about environmental health — but also from a troubling history of perceived retribution for speaking out against oil developments in Canada.


In 2003, after Dr. John O’Conner sounded alarms over a cluster of a very rare cancer near an oil patch in Athabasca, staff at Canada’s health regulator Health Canada filed five complaints against O’Conner, which could have cost him his license. The move was widely seen as an attempt to dissuade him from speaking about the cancers.

Sears wrote in her report that doctors around Peace River referenced the case of Dr. O’Connor several times. “Physicians are quite frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry,” she wrote. [Emphasis added

Report on Alberta doctors’ reluctance on oil patch illnesses has opposition worried by Bob Weber, January 20, 2014, The Canadian Press
Opposition politicians are raising concerns over a report done for Alberta’s energy regulator that suggests doctors are reluctant to draw links between health problems and the energy industry. “We do have a culture in this province which actively diminishes healthy and important debate about the health and environmental effects of our dominant industry,” NDP critic Rachel Notley said Monday.

David Swann, a Liberal member of the legislature, said the government doesn’t even want to know the truth. “It’s clear the government doesn’t really want to know the best science in some of these areas,” said Swann, who lost his job as a public health doctor for speaking out on climate change during the Tory government of Ralph Klein. “They haven’t funded it, and they haven’t disseminated the knowledge appropriately to the physician population.”

On Tuesday, a hearing is set to begin in Peace River, Alta., about the source and effects of odours that landowners blame on the local oil patch, particularly the operations of Baytex Energy. …

Among the reports commissioned for the hearing by the Alberta Energy Regulator is one from Margaret Sears, a doctor in chemical engineering, who has testified on environmental contamination for many bodies including the Royal Society of Canada. Sears wrote that even though most health professionals believe petrochemical emissions affect health, Peace River doctors seemed unwilling to consider if the conditions their patients complained of were caused by long-term exposure to petrochemicals. “There were reports from various sources that physicians would not diagnose a relationship between bitumen exposures and chronic symptoms, that physician care was refused for individuals suggesting such a connection,” she wrote. Even medical labs refused to conduct an analysis when told it was to be used to try to establish such a link, said Sears. One doctor, in a medical report released as part of the hearing, advised his patient “to go through environmental lawyers” and did not prescribe treatment.

Sears confirmed to The Canadian Press that her conclusions were based on interviews with both patients and doctors. She wrote that the physicians’ reluctance stemmed in part from a lack of research they could use to form a credible opinion and in part from “fear of consequences.”

“I’m not surprised,” said Dr. John O’Connor, a doctor who was disciplined in 2007 for raising cancer concerns in the oil patch community of Fort Chipewyan. The Alberta Cancer Board has since found elevated levels of four different cancers in the community.

“It has been said to me many a time over the last few years, or words to that effect,” he said.

“It’s not easy. You set yourself up as a moving target.”

Allan Garbutt, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said he couldn’t comment on the specific concerns in Sears’ report. “I certainly agree that physicians must not feel intimidated in exercising their advocacy role,” he said. “There would also be merit in exploring the report’s suggestion that better research on the impact of oil and gas emissions on patients and communities is needed for strong policy development. Better information, training and support for physicians to help diagnose their patients would always be welcome.”

Matthew Grant, spokesman for Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne, played down Sears’s suggestions. “No concerns of this nature have been forwarded to our office. We would always expect physicians to inform the government of any public health concerns they may have.”

Notley said the province has consistently avoided conducting research that could answer the kind of questions being raised in Peace River. “The status quo is to believe that nothing’s wrong and all industry has to do is say, ‘Show us a mountain of evidence,’ ” she said. “It’s very imbalanced, and that imbalance works against people without the resources to build those mountains of evidence.”

Swann said Alberta public health doctors aren’t trained enough to be able to diagnose health complaints caused by environmental contamination. “We haven’t been trained to do the physical assessment, order the right blood tests and put together the exposure with the health systems,” he said. “We’re working in ignorance, and there is the fear of challenging both government and industry in such a dominant industry activity here.” Swann said his experience was widely noted among his colleagues. “I paid a price, 10 years ago. I think the lesson most physicians took from that is that you speak up at your risk.” [Emphasis added]

Some doctors refused to treat emission-area residents: report, Public hearings set to start into Peace River area emissions by Shiela Pratt, January 19, 2014, Edmonton Journal
Some Peace River area doctors are afraid to speak out about health impacts of oil and gas activity and in some cases have declined to treat area residents who wondered if their health problems were related to emissions, says one of two independent health experts hired by the Alberta Energy Regulator. Doctors fear negative consequences to their careers if they speak out, and in one case, one lab refused to process a test, says Dr. Margaret Sears, an Ontario expert in toxicology and health who will appear this week at a special hearing into complaints about emissions from the Baytex oilsands operation 32 kilometres south of Peace River.

In a rare move, the energy regulator called a special ten-day public hearing, starting in Peace River Tuesday, to examine whether emissions from wells or from bitumen heated in storage tanks could be causing health problems, including dizziness, headaches, cognitive impairment and sleeping problems among residents who left their homes.

To prepare for the hearing, AER hired eight independent expert to provide advice on various issues, including possible health impacts, the chemistry of local bitumen, impact on livestock, and to track various vapour sources on the plant sites. Baytex also provided studies for the year. The company has consistently stated is complying with all regulation.

Both Ottawa-based Sears and Calgary-based toxicologist Donald Davies of Instrinsik Environment Services [Refer also below] interviewed the residents as part of their study on health impacts. 

Sears, with a PhD in chemical engineering and a specialty in health and environment, said in her interviews she found physician care was refused when a resident suggested a connection between their symptoms and oil and gas emissions. “Communications with public health officials and medical professionals revealed a universal recognition that petrochemical emissions affect health; however, this was countered by a marked reluctance to speak out,” wrote Sears. The reluctance stems from fear of consequences, lack of data about exposure levels, and lack of knowledge on the part of doctors on how to deal with exposures to petrochemical emissions, she wrote.

“Physicians are quite frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil and gas industry,” wrote Sears, adding she heard several times about the case of Dr. John O’Connor who was threatened with losing his licence after raising an alarm about cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan.

Both experts concluded that vapours released into the air from heated bitumen could well be connected to health problems of families.

Davies concludes residents are not being poisoned, however. The strong odours, not the toxic chemicals in the vapours, could be related to health problems such as dizziness, headaches, cognitive impairment, writes Davies, who has appeared for companies at dozens of hearings assessing pipelines and other projects. “The weight of evidence indicates some prospect for people to notice odours from the emissions at times in the area and these odours might possibly result in certain individuals experiencing symptoms …’’ writes Davis. He notes that the “mere presence” of toxic chemicals and some carcinogens in the bitumen emissions does not mean residents are being poisoned, he said.

That would depend on “the amount, duration and frequency of the exposures” to the chemicals and that is not known as it has not been measured.

In her report, Sears says the “weight of evidence” supports the hypothesis that people’s health “could be adversely affected from exposure to the emissions.” She also noted measurement of some of the chemicals in the vapours were “particularly inexact.” While the regulator knows a lot of about hydrogen sulphide, a pollutant it regulates, it does not know enough about emissions coming off heated bitumen which are much more complex, she added. Her report calls for the AER to improve air monitoring and improved quality standards and acquire expertise in environmental health for health care professionals.

Documents obtained by the Journal also show in one case, a doctor noted the patients had possible environmental toxicity and advised the patient “to go through environmental lawyers.”

Baytex says it is complying with all regulations in its operations. It also plans [How many more years do the harmed citizens have to wait for these plans to unfold?] install equipment to collect the vapours coming off the storage tanks after it builds additional pipelines, said company spokesperson Andrew Loosely. “The company is committed [committed does not mean doing] to continuous improvement” said Loosley. “We are looking forward to the hearing, a good place to bring all issues and concerns for review.”

Keith Wilson, lawyer acting for the residents who abandoned their homes, says the problem is the regulator has no regulations governing emissions coming off heated bitumen. [There is however Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act that regulators and harmed families can use to hold polluters accountable]

“That’s one thing I hope comes out of this hearing,” he said. “It’s good that the government and regulator are moving to close this gap and it’s also good most of the other companies operating in the Peace River region have voluntarily stopped emissions, said Wilson. “It is unfortunate Baytex continues to hold out and resist doing what obviously needs to be done.” [Emphasis added]

Hearings to start on Peace River oilsands odours by The Canadian Press, January 19, 2014, Calgary Herald
Hearings are scheduled to begin this week on odours blamed on oilsands operations that have driven northern Alberta families off their land and at least one of the affected farmers hopes it will all wind up with tougher rules against bad smells. “The best result possible is that they make some regulations to get companies to capture their vapours,” said Alain Labrecque, who’s had to leave the farm his father pioneered over pungent smells that he says are destroying the health of his wife and children.

The hearings, scheduled to begin in Peace River on Tuesday, were called last fall by Alberta’s energy regulator after repeated complaints from families in the tiny communities of Three Creeks and Reno. In an affidavit filed with the regulator, Labrecque complained of powerful, gassy smells and symptoms including severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue. All those symptoms began in 2011, after Baytex Energy purchased 46 wells in the area.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. While there are other operators in Three Creeks, Baytex is the only one in Reno.Previously released studies commissioned by the regulator strongly suggested that Baytex’s operations were the source of the odours. One found that the bitumen produced in the area is rich in sulphur, a common source of bad smells. Another showed the amount of gas vented from a large area that includes Peace River has roughly doubled since 2010.

Another cast doubt on the quality of data from Baytex-commissioned reports measuring air contaminant levels.

New studies have reached similar conclusions.

“Venting is the likely issue,” said a study from one consultant, who added that previous studies on the issue probably underestimated odour impacts by a factor of two. Another report found that while contaminants in the air have remained below levels required to damage health, odours themselves can cause many of the symptoms the families complain of. “Studies of the health impacts of odours have revealed a number of different symptoms that can be attributed to odour alone, fully distinct from toxicological effects,” said Donald Davies of Intrinsik Environmental Sciences.

Taken together, the findings reveal a gap in Alberta’s oilpatch rules, said lawyer Keith Wilson, who is representing the Labrecques. Those rules govern emissions of toxic gases or gases that can be collected in enough quantity to be profitable. But they don’t directly address the production of odours. “The regulations that we have in place now are designed for one of two things — either for the traditional oilsand operations or the old conventional oil and gas,” said Wilson. “This type of production, where they’re pulling it out of the ground cold and heating it on the surface in open tanks, that is an approach that the regulations were never written for.”

Baytex spokesman Andrew Loosley said the company welcomes the hearings, which will run for eight days. He said the company has taken steps to try and address odour problems. No new wells have been drilled for two years and a pipeline is being installed to help carry off fumes. Baytex hopes the hearings will clarify what’s expected of industry operators, Loosley said. “We like to have clear line-of-sight with everything that we do. We believe that’s important so everybody understands what the expectations are. We feel that it’s important to have a safe environment for our workers as well as the residents in the area, so as far as we’re concerned, the government will set the regulations and we’re going to abide by them.”

The regulator has said it will release its findings by the end of March.

[Refer also to:

EnCana Corporation facing criminal charges

B.C. gas-well health study by Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc. called into question ….the Peace Environment and Safety Trustees Society, says Calgary-based Intrinsik Environmental Sciences Inc. has previous involvement with the oil and gas industry. Society spokesman Tim Ewert said Intrinsik was hired by EnCana Corporation after a sour gas leak in 2009 and spoke with residents about how sour gas was affecting their health. “We felt during their presentation that they down-played the dangers of [sour gas] extremely well,” 

$250000 in community safety projects following Encana deadly sour gas leak

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