PAHs Linked to Oil Sands Mining

An increase in <"">polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) has been linked in a recent study to oils sands mining. Reuters wrote that new research found that PAH levels increased 41 percent from 1999 to 2010 when oils sands mining was on the rise in Alberta, Canada’s Athabasca River.

The government and industry have long maintained that pollutants there are a result of natural sources, said Reuters. The 956-mile river—which drains into Lake Athabasca, Alberta’s largest free-flowing river—flows northeast through much of that province’s tar sands. PAHs are an environmental health issue because several are probable human carcinogens and they are toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

The toxin’s levels in Athabasca River sediments, found downstream from oil sands projects, saw the increase, said the research, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, said Reuters. According to Kevin Timoney, lead investigator with Treeline Ecological Research and the study’s lead author, said the increase—more than doubling—is consistent with the increase in oils sands production in the lower Athabasca region, wrote Reuters.

These oil sands deposits are the second-largest petroleum reserve in the world following Saudi Arabia, Reuters pointed out. In 2009, Canada exported some 950,000 barrels of oils sands crude daily into the United States, about 80 percent of the estimated 1.2 million barrels that are extracted each day form Alberta, explained Reuters, which added that over the next five years, that figure is expected to double.

Occurring naturally, bitumen, the element extracted in sand mining and which is described as a thick tarry crude oil, increases hydrocarbon exposure into the environment, explained Reuters. Experts are concerned about the effects of bitumen extraction, which involves a lot of energy and water, on the Athabasca River and which sends more PAHs into the environment, said Reuters. As a matter-of-fact, lower Athabasca River has PAH concentrations deemed harmful to aquatic life.

Environmentalists blame sand mining on the increased concentrations while industry and government claim the levels are from naturally occurring bitumen. Meanwhile scientists have discovered increasing PAH levels in the river’s sediment downstream of the mines, a drift not occurring upstream, said Reuters. The findings mirror other independent, peer-reviewed studies that point to the dangerous effects of sand mining on Athabasca River’s Basin, said Reuters

PAHs, which accumulate in sediment, travel through the food chain via aquatic life, said Timoney. Exposure can also occur when breathing in the toxins, eating PAH-contaminated foods, or through skin contact, wrote Reuters. Timoney believes people living along the Athabasca River Delta are at increased risks if they consume fish and wildlife from this area. Reuters pointed to a 2009 study in which the Alberta Cancer Board revealed cancer rates 30 percent greater than expected in Fort Chipewyan, a 1,200-resident locale 155 miles downstream from the mines. That community relies heavily hunting and fishing for their food.

Timoney and his co-author Peter Lee believe the cancer spike is linked to the toxins, saying the finding “certainly calls for an urgent health study specifically related to these toxins,” quoted Reuters.

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