Are Canadian Doctors Ignoring Patients to Protect Big Oil?

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, 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


Val M.
Val M4 years ago

Sadly noted

Jean Duggan
Jean Duggan4 years ago

This is unconscionable!!!!

Gerald L.
Gerald L4 years ago

Oilsands air pollutants underestimated, researchers find ‎- 8 hours ago
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Environmental health risks of Alberta oil sands likely underestimated ... › News › National
9 hours ago - Researchers say emissions of potentially hazardous air pollution that were used in ... The study, by the University of Toronto's environmental chemistry research ... reports to predict chemical concentrations from direct oilsands ...

Pollution from oilsands greater than first believed, new research ...
7 hours ago - Weather brought to you by Canadian Tire .... appear to be adequate representations of actual emissions in the region,” the report says. ... “We rigorously monitor oilsands emissions and set strict emission standards as a part of ...

Stephen Brian
Stephen Brian4 years ago

Hi Erik :)

If you think something else is going on, then please enlighten us as to how you can get strong correlations with the smell despite experts, including Sears, having found insufficient concentrations of toxins in the environment to do that?

Hi Gerald :)

The problem is that the strength of a smell coming off a site, whether a factory or a farm, depends primarily on the direction of the wind. Are you upwind or downwind of the source? The wind's direction changes very frequently and very much, so we're not talking about longer-timescale things like proximity of home and humidity which would allow buildups over time. I know that experts can be compromised, so I don't take their conclusions as necessarily true. Sears' theory really doesn't seem to match the timing of the symptoms. (Arguably, she too is compromised by her background: If you specialize in using a hammer, everything looks like a nail.)

Also, environmental sensitivities as described by the CHRC are idiosyncratic sensitivities. We are looking at a high-density thing, not a few scattered cases.

Gerald L.
Gerald L4 years ago

For earth shattering truths about Pharma-care, read this book.

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We grew up putting Doctors on granite blocks like they were gods, In 03-04 a co-worker asked where I thought he could possibly buy some up-scale wood-working tools. Then explained it was not him , but actually his nurse daughter who was now a Drug Saleslady. I burst out laughing having read Dr. Angell's book. It was a gift for a physician, one of the many ways they compromise themselves. Ethic$, moral$ gone, Apparently in the US some physicians have posted signs on their Office doors, NO DRUG SALESPEOPLE ALLOWED!!!

Marie W.
Marie W4 years ago

Money talks and sh-t walks.

Gerald L.
Gerald L4 years ago

Read this document Stephen: the Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities for the Canadian Human Rights Commission 2007 I just shared these 2 papers yesterday to someone who has scent sensitivities. You just do not understand what it can be like for some people who have reached "toxic body burden" and when exposed its like "ninja stars stabbing inside their lungs"

A professor of Bio-chemistry & Metabolism said it is disgraceful how little they teach Doctors in Medical School. Never mind negligible toxicology.

Gerald L.
Gerald L4 years ago

@ Stephen B. Edmonton Journal quote: Davies said, who runs Intrinsik Environmental Consulting and appears frequently at industry hearings on the issue

(Dr. Sears) Her theory is that some of the chemicals in the emissions slow the elimination of others, driving accumulation in the patients' bodies to a concentration higher than is in the environment. If that were true, then the symptoms would be constant, not strongly correlated with the smell of the emissions.

Stephan, they live nearby, which means a stay-at-home-mother maybe inhaling the emissions 24/7. But on a hot sunny day the emissions likely go straight up, overcast days & at night just hang low. Prevailing winds may blow the emissions away from their homes for extended periods.

When you inhale gases they get transferred into your blood in your lungs, so it varies if the wind is blowing towards you etc. It will not be constant! Davies is a compromi$ed witne$$ understand. Ms. Sears has a background in Toxicology, probably an excellent understanding in Bio-chemistry & Metabolism. Formaldehyde for example when inhaled converts to Formic acid in your liver, then Lactate in all your cells, which if it reaches a level can cause muscle pain or even MELAS, Lactic acid stroke like symptoms.

The "its all in your head" has been a long worn strategy taught in Medical Schools for decades, when they taught little Toxicology, Bio-chemistry & Metabolism and a negligible amount about Occupational Disease.

Bryna Pizzo
Bryna Pizzo4 years ago

Thank you for sharing such important news! We have to fight for clean energy.

Gerald L.
Gerald L4 years ago

Are we actually surprised that Doctors would be corrupted by Big Oil when all too many have sold their soul to Big Pharma, going to Island Resorts, Cruise Ships for Seminars, accepting gifts from Drug salesman/ladies getting their monthly Profit -sharing check from the Pharmacies for all the Prescriptions they prescribe. Just listen to a Drug Add on TV about all the potential side-effects. The author of "Sugar Blues" called it the "disease establishment" in 1975. A good read for migraine sufferers.

Do you have any idea what an MD can be paid up-front for a Drug Trial, then so much per patient. How can every patient on a psychiatric ward need to be switched to the same medication??? Kickbacks!!! Google Class action Lawsuit's on Lipitor, Prozac, Zyprexa etc.

"The Truth About Drug Companies" written by a retired Editor of "The New England Journal of Medicine"