A University of Alberta study suggests that pollution levels from Alberta's oilsands are nearly five times greater than official estimates.

The study, spearheaded by U of A biological sciences professor David Schindler, shows levels of polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAC), a group of organic contaminants containing several carcinogens,  have increased the closer they got to the oilsands developments and reached a point where the airborne particles left an oily slick on top of melted snow. Researchers say the toxic emissions  are the equivalent of a major oil spill repeated every year.

"We found rather massive inputs of toxic organic compounds by the oilsands industry to the Athabasca River and its tributaries," said Schindler. "The major contribution to the river was from industry."

The highest levels of PAC's were found within 50 kilometres of two major oilsands upgraders, which is twice the previous distance estimate.

Schindler says government and industry officials have claimed that pollution in the area's soil and rivers occurs naturally.

During the winter and summer of 2008, the research team monitored water and snow packs concentrations of pollutants along the Athabasca. The study took measurements at 60 locations along the Athabasca.

Schindler says the federal government currently operates one water quality collection point in the area.

The new study is the latest of several that singles out the oilsands industry's environmental impacts.

The province has denied the findings of U.S. researchers who said oilsands mines, and other facilities in the area have wiped out enough bird habitat that over 160 million fewer songbirds could be flying in North American skies in the next 50 years.

With files from the Canadian Press