Television Fails to Provide A Good Model For Detecting Environmental Pollution

In The Simpsons, the three eyed fish Blinky is used as an indicator of radioactive waste from Springfield’s nuclear power plant.

In the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan a “mutated” fish was caught.  This was held up as a example of the harm caused by environmental pollution from the oilsands far upstream from the community.  However under further investigation,

An apparently a two-jawed fish caught in the Athabasca River last summer and held up as proof that oilsands developments are poisonous is actually just a normal fish, according to a University of Alberta scientist.

It turns out that this is not a mutation:

… University of Alberta biologist Joe Nelson, who examined the fish, said its tongue — which has teeth on it — fell through the soft tissue under its chin, forming what looked like a second mouth.

This does not mean that there is no oil sands generated  pollution in the river.  Residents of Fort Chipewyan are still claiming:

“What we do clearly observe in Fort Chipewyan and we’ve heard anecdotally in the past that there have been mutated fish,” Poitras said in an interview.

“We’ve also observed fish with lesions on them, with cancerous tumors on the outside, with diseased insides … fish that don’t taste normal, and many other types of deformities.”

None of this directly points to contamination of the Athabasca river by the oil sands but it should clearly be investigated.

Fish with lesions and even tumors might have normal explanations such as changes in water temperature due to rising global temperatures.  Perhaps the fish are being affected by pollution from a source other than from the oil sands.

The community does have an abnormally high levels of cancer.  The news report did not indicate the type of cancer and some cancers take years or decades before they are detected in which case it would have to be from contamination years ago.   Alternately, the community may have higher than average incidents of smoking and obesity both leading causes of cancer.

It is possible that the oil sands are the root cause of problem but they certainly are not the only possibility.  Hopefully future investigations can find an explanation for the Fort Chipewyan residents.

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