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Least Surprising News of the Day: Oil Sands "Tied to Higher Carcinogen Level"

2 min. read

Sometimes, you pick up the newspaper and you read a story that surprises you, as it was not at all what you expected to hear. Then there are the stories where you sort of scratch your head and ask yourself, "could this be any more obvious?"  Today's New York Times has a perfect example of the latter type of story, on a link between oil sands and cancer. Here's an excerpt.

The development of Alberta’s oil sands has increased levels of cancer-causing compounds in surrounding lakes well beyond natural levels, Canadian researchers reported in a study released on Monday. And they said the contamination covered a wider area than had previously been believed.

For the study, financed by the Canadian government, the researchers set out to develop a historical record of the contamination, analyzing sediment dating back about 50 years from six small and shallow lakes north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, the center of the oil sands industry. Layers of the sediment were tested for deposits of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, groups of chemicals associated with oil that in many cases have been found to cause cancer in humans after long-term exposure.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we lacked long-term data,” said John P. Smol, the paper’s lead author and a professor of biology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. “So some in industry have been saying that the pollution in the tar sands is natural, it’s always been there.

Personally, my (least) favorite part of all this is how the oil sands industry claims, apparently with a straight face, that pollution is "natural," so essentially don't blame them for any cancer caused by their activities. Of course, lots of things are natural, such as coal, but that doesn't mean the damage from mountaintop removal coal mining and the burning of coal isn't real. Same thing with oil sands production, the environmental impact of which includes "huge emissions of global warming gases, destruction of wildlife habitat, and impacts to air and water quality." So sure, oil sands may be "natural," in the sense that they were produced by nature over millions of years, but that doesn't make it any better for today's environment...or for today's cancer rates.