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Physicians reluctant to link health problems to petrochemicals

EDMONTON — 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.

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 oilpatch, particularly the operations of Baytex Energy.

Baytex uses an unusual method of heating bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract the oil. Residents say the fumes from those heated tanks are causing powerful gassy smells and leading to symptoms that include severe headaches, dizziness, sinus congestion, muscle spasms, popping ears, memory loss, numbness, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting, eye twitching and fatigue.

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 oilpatch community of Fort Chipewyan. The Alberta Cancer Board has since found elevated levels of four 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.”

 
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