The 33rd Annual Meeting of the North American Chapter of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) is currently underway in Long Beach, California. I wasn’t able to attend SETAC this year, but fortunately for me Naomi Lubick has been tweeting some of the highlights from the conference,
Infrastructure for sewage and wastewater treatment is aging, and could end up making things worse if ignored: leaking poop! #sfei #setac2012
The paper that she is referring was authored by Erin Kelly (can be found here), examined the concentrations of priority pollutants (Sb, As, Be, Cd, Cr, Cu, Pb, Hg, Ni, Se, Ag, Tl, and Zn) in snowpack and water from the areas surrounding the Alberta oil sands development. One of the main findings of their paper was that within 50 km of upgrading facilities, 11 400 metric tons of airborne particulates were deposited during 4 months of snowfall. The majority of those particulates consisted of oil sands bitumen, some priority pollutants and polyaromatic compounds, and the particulate elements decline in concentration more rapidly with distance from development, than do those dissolved elements. The study by Kelly et al. got lots of attention and resulted in a press conference where David Schindler waved around a fish found in the Athabasca River which was deformed and had tumors. He attributed the deformities in the fish to the oil sands operations in Fort McMurray, and warned of potential health effects for members of the surrounding communities. Largely as a result of the work of Kelly and Schindler, Environment Canada began an intensive monitoring campaign in the area. The results of their studies are now being shared.
This is referring to the work of Jane Kirk et al. of Environment Canada, whose findings confirmed those of Kelly et al., but also found that the loadings extended further than previously reported. Kirk et al. collected snowpack samples from ~90 sites located 0-200 km from the major bitumen upgrading facilities to determine the atmospheric contaminant loadings into the Athabasca River. They found all 13 of the priority pollutants that Kelly et al. looked at, and noted that the loadings were 1.5 to 13 times greater at sites within 50 km of the upgraders, compared to those sites that were further than 50 km away. They also noted that particulate bound methyl mercury (MeHg) increased exponentially with proximity to the upgraders. The presence and concentration of MeHg is troubling as it is a very bioaccumulative substance that is also quite toxic.
A related study, presented by Derek Muir (Environment Canada), found that concentrations of total PAHs in lake sediments surrounding the oil sands development were 2.5 to 23 times greater than there were pre-1960 background levels. Muir commented that the footprint of deposition is potentially larger than anticipated, and that the rising levels of PAHs in sediments seems to parallel the development of the oil sands industry.
Hey #Alberta: Lakes & food chain full of PAHs & mercury. Is this to be your legacy? http://bit.ly/QdHHpA #SETAC #abpoli #tarsands #oilsands
Defunding in 3,2,1: Fed scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants travel further than expected http://www.calgaryherald.com/life/Federal scientists uncover evidence that oilsands contaminants/7542920/story.html #cdnpoli
But it is worth noting that the concentrations of the PAHs in the lake sediments (with the exception of the lake closest to the oil sands development) are below guideline limits, in fact, they are similar to concentrations observed around urban areas. These concentrations are are not yet great enough that they are considered toxic to aquatic life.
Still relatively low concentrations of PAHs from oil operations. #TarSands #EnvironmentCanada #setac2012
Interestingly, results presented by Joanne Parrott (Environment Canada), found that melted snow (amended with essential salts to mimic the ionic composition of the Athabasca River) from near the oil sands mining and refining areas were toxic to larval fathead minnows from 25 to 100% strength.
“The snow was toxic” to fathead minnow larvae near stacks but clean far away. What happens to melt? #EnvironmentCanada #TarSands #setac2012
These results are being presented at a conference and I am largely gathering information about the work being presented through the SETAC Abstract book and the tweets and updates from colleagues. This is by no means the ideal way of getting information, but it does represent how most people would be exposed to science news, and while it is cool that it is happening, it is still lacking. Reading a full peer reviewed paper gives much more information and a more complete story to help interpret the results. Unfortunately, that format is largely unavailable to the public (both as it is written and physically as a paper), and as such we have to rely on newspaper articles and press releases which are often incomplete and can be misleading. Hopefully once the results presented at the SETAC conference get published, there will be a renewed discussion of their significance and they will help inform the future development of the Canadian oil sands.