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Cancer-causing Chemical Levels Skyrocket in Alberta’s Industrial Heartland

An independent study has found high levels of airborne carcinogens downwind of Alberta’s industrial heartland, an area that has come to be known as “cancer alley” for its high rates of rare cancers.

Alberta’s industrial heartland is at area of 533 square km about 30 km North of Edmonton, next to the community of Fort Saskatchewan. It also includes a 49 square km section on the Northeast edge of Edmonton, adjacent the largely residential neighbourhood of Beverly. The Alberta Industrial Heartland Association (AIHA), a group launched in 1998 by a number of municipalities to encourage industrial growth in the area, touts it as the largest geographic area in Canada dedicated to hydrocarbon processing.

Among the more than 40 companies that have industrial plants in the area are plants owned by Dow Chemical, Enbridge, Kinder Morgan, Suncor and Shell Canada. Operations in the area range from processing raw bitumen to production of plastics. 

Scientists from the University of California Irvine and the University of Michigan found 77 volatile organic compounds (VOC) in samples they took from land downwind of the heartland district. They discovered levels that rivaled the air over Mexico City during the 1990s when birds were said literally to have dropped dead in flight.

“Remarkably strong enhancements of 43 VOCs were detected, and concentrations in the industrial plumes were often similar to or even higher than levels measured in some of the world's largest cities and industrial regions.”

The authors are reticent to make a direct connection between the rise in VOCs and the hike in cancer rates, calling for better emissions testing and better monitoring of incidences of cancer by type. However, they do point out that elevated risks of blood cancer have been observed in other areas downwind from industries that emit the chemicals they observed.

“For example, leukemia incidence in exposed population living near a large Swedish oil refinery known to emit benzene and other VOCs was significantly elevated (33 cases vs. 22 expected cases) compared to local controls (50 cases vs. 56 expected), despite an estimated refinery contribution to annual average VOC concentrations of only 0.63 ppb for benzene and 0.23 ppb for 1,3-butadiene.”

Although she welcomes the report, Nikki Booth of Alberta Environment questioned the real human impact of its findings.

“The locations where the data was collected do not necessarily represent the locations where people are exposed,” she told Canadian Press. “Calls for an immediate reduction in emissions of known carcinogens cannot actually be supported by the data collected in the report.”

Site Selection, an American corporate real estate magazine, recognized the AIHA as one of the top economic development groups in Canada for investment.

Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Mike Hudema, however, says that development should not come at the expense of the health of people living in the area. He sees a clear connection between the report’s findings and first-hand reports from those living in the area surrounding Alberta’s industrial heartland.

"This study confirms what local residents have been saying for years, but the Alberta government was too busy pushing tar sands expansion to listen,” he said via e-mail. “The Alberta government needs to put the health of people first and drastically reduce the cancer causing chemicals being produced by Alberta's industrial heartland as recommended by these scientists. Alberta shouldn't have to sacrifice communities, but these cancer clusters suggest that is exactly what the Alberta government is allowing to happen. We need to reduce that pollution now, before more people get sick."

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