The Government of Alberta is investigating why one Edmonton neighbourhood sees more diagnoses of three types of cancer, following a report that shows the area’s soil is contaminated with toxic chemicals.

After taking 1,039 samples of the former Domtar site’s surface and sub-surface in 2017 and 2018, the province discovered 183 samples had contamination levels that exceeded human health guidelines for toxic chemicals. Ninety-six per cent of them were in fenced-off areas.

Cancer and concerns

Alberta Health found there were more cases of breast, lung and endometrial cancer in Edmontonians who lived in the Verte Homesteader neighbourhood for 10 years or more compared to surrounding neighbourhoods.

  • Breast cancer: 34 cases (16-31 cases expected)
  • Lung cancer: 22 cases (6-14 cases expected)
  • Endometrial cancer: 14 cases (3-9 cases expected)

The province did not link the high contamination levels to a spike in cancer cases, and Alberta Health, along with federal experts, will investigate the factors that contributed to the increase.

“I want to be very clear: This data, on its own, does not indicate why there are higher rates for these three types of cancer in the area,” Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said. “Many factors could contribute to an increased risk of cancer, including medical history, medication use and tobacco use, among others.”

As precaution, women who have lived near the Domtar site at least a decade are encouraged to talk to their doctors about beginning breast cancer screening at the age of 40, instead of 50.

On Thursday afternoon, City of Edmonton crews cordoned off a playground and put public health information on front doors.

The Beras moved next to the Domtar site in early 2018. Months later, the province ordered soil testing on their backyard and found high levels of toxic chemicals. They were told to stay inside, keep the windows closed and not touch dirt.

“Me and my kids are suffering,” Dume Bera, a father of three, told CTV News. “We don’t go outside. We don’t do anything. … we’re like living in jail right here.”

Criticism and cleanup

Cherokee Canada, the neighbourhood’s developer, criticized Alberta Environment and Parks and Alberta Health for “unsubstantiated information” and “causing anxiety in the community.”

“Raising the specter of health riskwithout substantiation and erroneously drawing a link to the development site, raises morequestions and detracts from the rigorous process undertaken by the Board to review theDepartment’s actions towards Cherokee,” Cherokee Managing Director John Dill said in a statement.

The company also said independent experts tested the soil and found there was no risk to residents.

Environment and Parks Executive Director Randall Barrett said the government has urged “multiple parties who have not taken any actions to remediate the contamination” to begin cleanup in the spring.

If not, Barrett said the government will clean up the site and charge “the company.”

Cherokee Canada claimed it was approached by the government “only last week” to “take immediate action.”

The provincial government will release a soil sampling report on the former wood-processing site later this month.

Areas with high levels of toxic chemicals will continue to be fenced off.

The government proposed the following two open houses to discuss the situation with the public:

  • March 9 from 5 to 8 p.m. in multipurpose room 2 at Clareview Community Recreation Centre
  • March 14 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in multipurpose room 3 at Clareview Community Recreation Centre