Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Famed environmentalist outraged by criticism of whistleblowing Alta. doctor

Famed environmentalist outraged by criticism of whistleblowing Alta. doctor

More on the Cancer Whistleblower situation:

Famed environmentalist outraged by criticism of whistleblowing Alta. doctor

Tim Naumetz
For CanWest News Service

Thursday, March 08, 2007

OTTAWA - The lawyer famous for his battle against a tannery that contaminated drinking water in a Massachusetts town says it is "outrageous" Health Canada complained about an Alberta doctor who suggested chemical contamination might be behind cancer deaths downstream from oilsands refineries.

Boston lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, played by John Travolta in A Civil Action, the Hollywood movie based on Schlichtmann's legal fight in the 1980s, says he was astonished at reports Health Canada filed a complaint against the Fort McMurray physician, Dr. John O'Connor.

"I think it's outrageous that they would try and shut up somebody who's trying to sound the alarm bell if there might be something going on," Schlichtmann said in an interview from his Massachusetts law office.

"The history is that environmental contamination can cause a population severe health effects, including cancer, and that the professionals who serve them have to be vigilant," added Schlichtmann, who won a long legal battle for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass.

An Alberta government official confirmed Health Canada filed a complaint with the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons after O'Connor challenged the conclusions of a government analysis of cancer and other deaths in the mostly Cree population of Fort Chippewyan last year.

Details of the complaint are confidential, and Health Canada would not directly confirm the complaint, but the official said he understands it was submitted by Health Canada physicians.

"This is a professional practice issue and is a matter for the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons to address," Health Canada said in an e-mail response to questions.

O'Connor, who treated Fort Chippewyan residents by flying in from his Fort McMurray practice, said in May 2006 he was alarmed by what he considered high rates of cancer in the community. He speculated cancer-causing chemicals might have entered the Athabasca River from massive oilsands refineries upriver from the town.

A study of vital statistics by the Alberta Health and Wellness Department and the Alberta Cancer Board, with the support of Health Canada, concluded the overall cancer mortality rate for Fort Chippewyan was slightly lower than the rate for the rest of Alberta.

But more detailed figures released by the Alberta government this week show higher than expected cases of colorectal cancer, liver and bile duct cancers, leukemia and lung cancer.

The 2006 report noted rates of diabetes, hypertension and death by injury and poisoning were above provincial averages and said a focus on those areas would improve the "overall" health of the community.

Schlichtmann said public officials must be open to public scrutiny and O'Connor appeared to be acting "in the finest tradition of what a doctor should be doing."

"A community that polices itself and silences its members is a community that has a cloud over its future," he said. "If they have any doubts about that, let them go look to the communities in Woburn, Massachusetts. People suffered in ignorance."

Members of the Fort Chippewyan community are calling for a wider first-hand study, including statistics for all cancer patients, not just those who died of cancer.

The head nurse with the Nunee Health Authority in Fort Chippewyan says four of about 11 deaths she has recorded in the hamlet since last May have been caused by cancer.

"It seems we have a lot; as a nurse I have to say that," said Georg MacDonald. "We don't have a study, we don't have a study of the living patients in Fort Chippewyan. To my mind, just off the top, I would say there is an awful lot of liver cancer."

O'Connor has been unavailable to comment this week.

Ottawa Citizen


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