Nov 9, 2009

Canada's Tar Sands & Cancer Rates

From this morning's paper: Report casts doubt on MD's claims about Alberta reserve's cancer rates

To some, Dr. John O'Connor is a whistleblower in the finest tradition - calling attention to environmental impacts others would prefer not to think about. To others, he's an activist who has permitted his political zeal to cloud his medical judgment.

It would be interesting to read this report in full. For now, there are two points worth highlighting:

The first, which isn't even hinted at in this news article, is that many of the reservations on which Canada's Native Indian/aboriginal/First Nations (choose your descriptor) folks live are tiny, desolate, and remote. The small size of these communities precludes the development of a vibrant, sustainable economy. This in turn almost always results in high unemployment and is associated with myriad other social ills: high rates of family violence, alcoholism, diabetes, youth suicide and so forth.

The fact that these communities are so remote means that it's virtually impossible to pursue the lifestyle choices associated not only with cancer prevention, but with positive health outcomes overall. Fresh fruit and vegetables are simply not on the menu for large parts of the year. In other words, there are lots of reasons - both nutritional and social - why cancer rates might be higher in these communities.

The second point worth noting is that, when medical officials from two levels of government attempted to verify Dr. O'Connor's allegations of higher-than-expected cancer rates, the doctor declined to cooperate. Reads the news article:
....he “obstructed” efforts by the Alberta Cancer Board and Health Canada to investigate his claims by defying the law and ignoring repeated requests to turn over his clinical evidence in a “timely manner."
This is not the way someone in possession of iron-clad proof of a serious medical problem would be expected to behave. And then there's this:
According to the report, when Dr. O'Connor finally co-operated with public health officials after stalling for close to two years, many of his numbers didn't match up with what he had been saying publicly...
To anti-tar-sands activists, Dr. O'Connor is the hero of a documentary film, a respected spokesperson in a David-and-Goliath struggle against Big Oil, and the victim of a financially motivated witch hunt.

The authors of this report take a different view. They found many of Dr. O'Connors statements to be "inaccurate" and "untruthful".

If I'm reading the news article correctly, it appears that although everyone else in this matter has given permission for the report to be publicly released and publicly discussed by the body that authored it, Dr. O'Connor has withheld his (necessary) permission.

The report concludes that punishing Dr. O'Connor would not serve the public interest. But it does, in careful, muted language suggest that its authors are not impressed by the way he has conducted himself:
The message that Dr. O'Connor and others may take from this review is the need for advocacy to be fair, truthful, balanced and respectful.