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Senators Call For Study On Keystone Health Effects After Doctor Cites Cancer Near Tar Sands

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"Senators Call For Study On Keystone Health Effects After Doctor Cites Cancer Near Tar Sands"

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Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks to reporters at a Feb. 26 news conference on the health impacts of tar sands oil.

Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks to reporters at a Feb. 26 news conference on the health impacts of tar sands oil.

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Two Democratic Senators are calling for a comprehensive study on how public health would be affected by the extraction and processing of tar sands — the type of fuel that would be transported through the Keystone XL pipeline — citing increased cancer rates in patients who live downstream of the fuel reservoirs.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told reporters at news conference on Wednesday that they will send a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asking for the study. The conference was brought on by what Boxer called “dramatic” new information from Alberta, Canada — where the tar sands are extracted — and where a rare type of cancer has increased by 30 percent since the extraction of the tar sands began.

Among other activists and advocates, Boxer and Whitehouse were flanked by Dr. John O’Connor, a primary care doctor who treats patients in the First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan. O’Connor has drawn widespread attention among Canadian officials for alleging that his patients there have extremely high rates of a rare and incurable bile-duct cancer. He believes the sickness rates are caused by airborne and water-borne emissions from tar sands facilities.

“I’m just here as an advocate for my patients, I have absolutely no political agenda,” O’Connor said. “There are piles of papers, peer-reviewed published scientific studies have been done that reveal a burden on the environment … this burden includes a sizable amount of carcinogens that get into the food chain, into the water and the air. These toxins have been linked with cancer.”

When he brought these concerns to the Canadian government nearly ten years ago, however, he said their reaction was “unexpected.”

Though O’Conner didn’t go into detail during the news conference, his struggles with the Canadian government are well-documented. When he called for a comprehensive study to be done on the health impacts on tar sands on the communities that surround them, it didn’t happen.

But in addition to a study not bring done, O’Connor was threatened with getting his license taken away by Canadian health officials who alleged O’Connor was causing “undue alarm” and “engendering a sense of mistrust” in the Canadian government. He was later cleared of the charges after the Alberta Cancer Board released a study that showed higher-than-expected cancer rates. That study, however, did not directly link the elevated cancer rates to the tar sands.

The First Nations community in Fort Chipewyan are not the only people living near the Canadian tar sands who are experiencing health problems. At least six families including children have abandoned their homes in Peace River, Alberta, citing health concerns from heavy oil emissions. Those families are currently calling for regulatory reform in Canadian government hearings, as companies that extract tar sands in Alberta are not obligated by current Canadian regulations to install pollution- and odor-reduction systems or capture emissions from their tar sands tanks.

Sen. Boxer said at the news conference that she would not likely get involved in regulatory proceedings in Canada.

“I want to protect everybody, believe me, but my role and my power lies here,” Boxer said. “I am extremely concerned about the impact of tar sands oil on our people, wherever they live in this nation. The issue before me is Keystone XL which, if approved, will bring a 45 percent increase in the amount of tar sands oil coming through [America] and eventually a 300 percent increase.”

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