Imagine this: you get sick after eating at a local restaurant. You go to the doctor for help, but after learning the circumstances that led to your illness, the doctor refuses to offer a diagnosis or treatment advice. When pressed for an explanation, the doctor says he doesn’t want to tarnish the restaurant’s reputation.
Most of us would consider that scenario outrageous and a complete violation of a doctor’s sworn duty, but it’s happening — and on a much more life-threatening scale — in Canada. According to a report prepared by Dr. Margaret Sears, an Ottawa-based PhD who specializes in toxicology and public health, doctors have refused to care for local residents who complain that emissions from local tar sands operations are making them sick.
In 2011, Baytex Energy, a company that “cooks” tar sands bitumen in above-ground tanks to extract oil, purchased almost four dozen oil wells in the Alberta area. According to PriceofOil.org, that’s about the time local residents started complaining about serious symptoms, “such as severe headaches, dizziness, sinus problems, vomiting, muscle spasms and fatigue, amongst others.”
When visiting their local doctors, residents often correlated the symptoms with the ”powerful, gassy smells” coming from the Baytex operation, a dangerous association that seems to have spooked the medical community.
In the report, co-authored by Sears, researchers note that, “Physician care was refused … and that analytical services were refused by an Alberta laboratory when told that the proposed analysis was to investigate exposure to emissions related to bitumen extraction.”
“Sears concludes that doctors’ reluctance stems from a lack of information about environmental health — but also from a troubling history of perceived retribution for speaking out against oil developments in Canada,” reports Al Jazeera.
Tar sands and fracking are the hot button issues for the fossil fuel industry right now, but one can’t deny that we’ve seen a similar situation play out before — with coal — and we’re still paying the penalties of inaction. Thanks to decades of allowing coal miners and coal-fired power plants to operate with little accountability for pollution, thousands of Americans have suffered negative health effects.
In a 2010 report titled “The Toll of Coal” [PDF], the Clean Air Task Force linked power plant pollution to 13,200 premature deaths that year. It also estimated that coal pollution contributes to 9,700 hospitalizations and more than 20,000 heart attacks per year. In 2011, a Harvard Medical School study found health costs due to air pollution from coal power plants total around $187 billion per year, and that’s not even including the intangible cost of what coal waste is doing to the nation’s drinking water.
Obviously, the oil and gas industry has learned a lot from its buddy Big Coal, and it’s doing whatever it can to discourage doctors from admitting that these toxic fumes can have a negative impact on public health.
“Communications with public health officials and medical professionals revealed a universal recognition that petrochemical emissions affect health; however, this was countered by a marked reluctance to speak out,” writes Sears in the report, citing past examples of attacks on doctors who sound the alarm.
According to the Edmonton Journal, Sears will get the chance to present her findings about health impacts and doctor intimidation at an upcoming local hearing into complaints about emissions from the Baytex oilsands operation.
Image via Peter Blanchard