Feds target medical whistleblower: doctor claims
Mike De Souza , CanWest News Service
Published: Monday, November 12, 2007
Dr. John O'Connor first suspected something was wrong a few years ago after discovering a rare form of cancer in a small northern Alberta community of 1,200 people.
He recognized the illness since it was the same one that had claimed the life of his father in Ireland more than 15 years earlier. He had never expected to see it again and was alarmed to find it in at least five different patients.
But the family physician never anticipated that speaking out about his concerns would land him in a career-threatening struggle against the federal government with his medical licence on the line.
"Looking back, it's been a nightmare for me," O'Connor said in an interview. "It's just something I never expected in a million years. I just wanted to be the family doctor that I was when I went up there."
The community of Fort Chipewyan is the oldest European settlement in the province, and it's also a few hundred kilometres downstream from Fort McMurray, at the heart of Alberta's oil patch and tarsands operations. But government officials from Health Canada responded to O'Connor's health warnings with a complaint to the Alberta College of Physicians that accused the doctor, who has practiced in Fort McMurray since 1993, of raising undue alarm.
Federal Health Minister Tony Clement is defending his government's complaint.
"Health Canada physicians acted as they are ethically obligated to act," Clement's spokeswoman Rita Smith wrote in an e-mail.
While a series of government studies have concluded there's no need to be alarmed about potential toxins and carcinogens spilling into the Athabasca River from oilsands operations and pulp mills, a new independent report released last week has discovered serious flaws with the government research and appears to confirm some of O'Connor's greatest fears.
"The findings of my study indicate that there is cause for concern in that there are contaminants that are in the food supply that are associated with cancer and types of cancer observed in community," said Kevin Timoney, an Alberta ecologist and statistician who released his report to the Fort Chipeywan community last Wednesday.
"Certainly these contaminants come from tarsands. Now the question is how much of the contaminant amount comes from human activity versus natural sources, and that we can't answer yet."
But the report concluded that the contaminants have been on the rise since the start of major industrial development in the region in the 1960s. The contaminants are not only getting into deformed fish with bulging eyeballs, but they are spreading throughout the food chain in moose and muskrats as well, the report says.
Jeff Short, a supervisory research chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska, compares the water quality in the Athabasca with the conditions following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
"In some respects, the situation in the Athabasca River was possibly even worse," he said.
While the concentration levels of cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the Athabasca are lower than in the Exxon Valdez spill, Short explained that the nature of oilsands oil spreads out to worsen the contamination.
Community leaders in Fort Chipewyan said last week that they were not surprised.
"You can only keep things hidden under the umbrella for so long before it becomes public information and at this point in time, it's our public information and where we go from here is another step," said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam.
With all the apparent evidence, O'Connor's friends and supporters in the community have little doubt that the complaints against him were deliberate.
"In this case, this is very clearly politically motivated," said Dr. Michel Sauve, a Fort McMurray doctor, who said he was speaking as O'Connor's colleague.
"This is very clearly to shut him up and shut him down. In this case, (it has) clearly escalated to a level that was only because of his media criticism of the government and the callous way in which the bureaucracy was dealing with the health concerns of the community. That I think is a feeling shared among physicians for sure."
Health Canada filed its complaint a few months after O'Connor wrote an open letter to a Halifax newspaper last December, urging Atlantic Canadians not to move out west. In the letter he said he was moving to Nova Scotia, describing life in Fort McMurray as "intolerable," and accusing the Alberta government of downplaying health risks.
Clement's office said the government will review the Timoney's new report very carefully, but they deny interfering with the case to silence O'Connor's criticism.
"There was absolutely no political involvement in this decision," said Smith.
O'Connor said he has considered filing a complaint of his own against the government agencies, but he added that he would still like to work with them since he believes they are in the best position to investigate and resolve the health concerns of the region.
Meantime, the doctor is confident that he will be cleared by the College of Physicians at the end of the case.
"It's not just one physician's word. These people have been seen by specialists and operated on, and (there were) pathology reports, et cetera. It's clear," O'Connor said. "If you can't basically advocate for your patients, then what the hell are we doing in this job?"