By June 29, 2017 Read More →

Oil sands often called ‘toxic’ but scientists’ evidence over-stated – Alberta health sciences prof

Oil sands

Warren Kindzierski: A scientist overusing the word in the media is doing nothing more than attempting to scare the public about unproven impacts.  CAPP Twitter photo.

By Warren Kindzierski

Three recent University of Alberta studies by Professor Bill Shotyk reported in the Edmonton Journal suggest that chemical contaminants in the Athabasca River around oil sands “may be overstated, with levels of metals vanishingly small.” That conclusion lit up the world of toxic-chemical alarmism.

Five Canadian scientists led by David Schindler, also from the University of Alberta, promptly fired back. Not true, they said. “Athabasca River contamination isn’t ‘overstated.’” Shotyk then countered with his own counter-counterpoint. “Trace elements in Athabasca need more study.”

Three articles, one after the other, seemed a bit fishy.

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To get to the bottom of it all, I waded through the Athabasca River studies and read the journal articles to find out what was being “overstated.” Turns out there were lots of overstatements — about exposure, toxicity and public health impacts made by Schindler and his colleagues. Some of their exaggerations really need clearing up.

Firstly, they love the word “toxic.” The Athabasca River is a cocktail of toxic elements, toxic contaminants, toxic to fish embryos, toxic in sunlight. But they were not very clear on the time frame in which these toxic conditions are apparently occurring in the river. Is it “before” or “after” the oil sands were developed? Bitumen and all of its supposedly harmful chemicals have been naturally leaking into the Athabasca River for hundreds of years in the region, well before any oil sands development began.
A scientist overusing the word toxic in the media is doing nothing more than attempting to scare the public about unproven impacts.

Secondly, what exactly do they mean by toxic? Using their word, one of the most toxic chemicals known to man is one that is essential to human life, oxygen in air we breathe. By the time we are adults, we are internally exposed to about 500 grams of oxygen each day — a known relentless destroyer of our DNA. A mammalian cell undergoes, on average, about 10,000 measurable DNA modification events in each cell each hour. DNA modification events and cancer mutation go hand in hand. By contrast, a person exposed to a “toxic chemical” (using their word) in the oil sands region would see this chemical being internally present in only microgram amounts — a million times less.

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Schindler and colleagues allege that people drink directly from the river and the cocktail of toxic contaminants may enter their bloodstream. Drinking untreated river water directly? Full of disease-causing pathogens and all? Good luck with that! Other than for chemical toxins produced from cyanobacteria, drinking a gallon a day of river water containing only microgram amounts of a metal or organic chemical may not be enough to cause any serious problems. On the other hand, one teaspoon is more than enough to cause a disease from a pathogen in river water. Hopefully common sense would prevail here.

Schindler and colleagues assert that Shotyk’s studies overlooked potential interactive toxicity from elements and organics. But human toxicologists long ago sorted out realities of potential interactive toxicity among chemicals. The dose makes the poison. At human exposure doses well below effect levels — which is what would happen here — chemical mixtures have no additivity and no potentiating interactions. Nothing happens.

A scientist overusing the word toxic in the media is doing nothing more than attempting to scare the public about unproven impacts. The more the word is used the scarier the message is supposed to be. This tactic only undermines the credibility of the scientific messenger. A seasoned geologist recently asked the question: Does hydraulic fracking cause earthquakes or do scientists and their seismometers cause them? It’s a worthy question. Whether it is oil sands development, hydraulic fracking or any other type of oil and gas activity in Alberta, there is no shortage of scary messages offered by scientists in the media. They make dramatic claims about pollution, toxic chemicals and impacts, but these are mostly overstated. As to the state of Alberta’s environment and in particular the oil sands region, the only things certain are death, carbon taxes and pollution scares. And not necessarily in that order.

Warren Kindzierski is an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta.

This opinion piece originally was published in the Financial Post on June 22.

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