Fort McMurray homes see normal levels of contaminants following 2016 wildfire: study

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A new study indicates dust from homes in Fort McMurray, Alta., had normal levels of indoor contaminants a year after a devastating forest fire hit the city, suggesting residents did not face an elevated health risk in the aftermath of the blaze.

Arthur Chan, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Toronto, said pollutants in house dust his team analyzed actually contained fewer toxins than homes in many other Canadian cities.

“We don’t see any cause for alarm,” Chan said. “We found that the levels are below what the guidelines considered as risky.”


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The results were published last week in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Chan said he and two other researchers spent three weeks going house to house in July 2017, about 14 months after the blaze, sucking up dust from bedrooms and living rooms — areas with the highest exposure — with commercial grade vacuums. They later analyzed what they collected in a lab.

The team went through more than 60 houses for the study.


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The researchers were driven to perform their work after residents raised safety concerns in wake of the massive wildfire that forced 88,000 people from their homes. Chan said the research was believed to be the first to look for the retention of “fire-derived pollutants” indoors.

“That’s partly because these kinds of fires are rare and it’s hard to mobilize quickly to go into the community to do the study,” Chan said.

The research team was examining the house dust for the levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are found in high concentrations in burned forests, and heavy metals that are found in high concentrations in ashes from burned buildings.


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They found trace elements of the heavy metal arsenic in house dust in neighbourhoods that were heavily damaged by fire compared to non-damaged neighbourhoods, but the levels weren’t above Alberta’s health guidelines, Chan explained. The researchers found no evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in Fort McMurray house dust.

“We still don’t know why, but we think maybe people did a very good job cleaning or maybe from this event there isn’t that much of an impact indoors,” Chan said. “Whatever it is, it is minimizing the health risk.”


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He said he hopes his results informs rebuilding and recovery efforts after wildfires.

“We expect this will be an important set of results for the future because there are likely going to be more wildfires because of climate change and difference in land uses,” he said.

Chan and his team are working on several other related studies. They have gone back to Fort McMurray three other times to look at long-term levels of pollutants inside homes as well as seasonal effects.

They are also working with a lung specialist who is conducting a parallel study looking at the residents of the same houses Chan’s team has examined.

“The idea is to compare what’s around you to what’s in you,” Chan said.

Watch below: A wildfire that forced 80,000 people in northern Alberta to flee more than a year ago has finally been extinguished. (Filed September 2017).






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Fort McMurray quadruplets given green light to go home

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When Fort McMurray couple Annie and Darrell Simms saw four small outlines on the ultrasound screen, they realized their lives were about to change in a big way.

“Annie and I looked at each other and we were in shock,” said Darrell. ”We laughed and then we cried a little bit.”

On Oct. 30, 2018, Carter, Nathan, Heidi, and Julia were born at the Foothills Medical Centre in Calgary, ranging in weight from one pound and three ounces to three pounds and four ounces.

Annie and Darrell Simms are heading home to Fort McMurray with their four new additions.

Michael King/Global News

The couple already has a three-year-old daughter and when they were looking to have a second child, they turned to artificial fertilization. Annie said the chances of success were low.

“[Our chances of getting pregnant] were only 10 to 15 per cent, so we were so happy,” said Annie. ”Then we were totally floored when we found out that it was four.”


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Each baby spent some time in the NICU since they were born at 30 weeks. The boys went home first and now all four have been given the green light to head home.

Darrell said the reality of having four newborns is finally setting in.

“We’ve got maybe 24 bottles in cycle at a time,” said Darrell. “It’s quite a process. We’ve got a station set up.”

WATCH (Mar. 7, 2017): Between feeding, changing diapers and tidying up, a new parent’s work is never done. Now imagine multiplying those constant demands by four. That’s just an average day in the life of Tim and Bethani Webb. Laurel Gregory has more.







According to the 2017 Perinatal Report, Alberta has one of the highest rates of multiple births in the country. The study shows that number has stayed steady since 2009.

The report also estimated that around 100 sets of triplets and quadruplets are born each year in Canada.


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Another set of four babies was born in Calgary to a Rocky Mountain House couple this year and the two families have been in touch.

“We’ve reached out to get opinions on things and it’s been helpful just knowing that there’s someone else that’s going through what we’ve gone through,” said Annie.

The Simms are headed back home to Fort McMurray and ready settle into their new life as a family of seven.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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More than oilsands: Mayor has eye on new brand for Fort McMurray

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The mayor of Canada’s oilsands capital says one of his priorities for 2019 is changing the way Canadians look at Fort McMurray.

In the new year, Wood Buffalo Mayor Don Scott has set his sights on a charm offensive with Canadians.

When people talk about Fort McMurray, Scott wants people to think beyond oilsands mines and camps, and instead imagine family-friendly communities with world-class recreational facilities surrounded by more protected forests and parks than most communities in Canada.

« They know that we are the economic engine of Canada. They’ve heard of us. Some have positive views. Some don’t, » Scott said in a year-end interview with CBC. « If people saw the reality of how great this region is, I think they would have a much easier time believing that this is a place to live and invest. »

By getting out a better brand for Fort McMurray, Scott hopes to attract more investment and convince more people to move to the community rather than flying in and out for work.

Other oil patch boosters have taken more confrontational approaches — especially when it comes to getting a pipeline built that could take Fort McMurray’s bitumen to new foreign markets.

Political figures such as former Fort McMurray MLA and opposition leader Brian Jean recently called for a boycott of Quebec-made products after Premier François Legault said there was « no social acceptability » in his province for a « dirty energy » pipeline from Alberta.


WATCH former Fort McMurray MLA and opposition leader Brian Jean call for a boycott of Quebec products.


Earlier in 2018, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley issued an outright ban on British Columbia wine and passed the so-called « turn off the taps » legislation that would allow the province to cut off energy shipments to B.C.

Notley’s actions were sparked after B.C.’s made further attempts to block the Trans Mountain pipeline, arguing it posed environmental risks for the province.

Scott did not mention the tactics of others, but said he will be using a softer public approach in the hopes of changing hearts and minds

Meanwhile, he says he’s still working all political back channels, including meetings in 2018 with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Notley.

« I think the advocacy by Albertans has really worked. When I travel and I talk to other Canadians they are much more familiar with the challenge right now, » Scott said. « And they are much more supportive of pipelines. I feel like we are heading in the right direction. »

Promoting the Fort McMurray brand will happen, in part, through the newly created Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation, which recently appointed Kevin Weidlich as the new CEO.

More goals for Mayor Don Scott in 2019

Connect with David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

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Mental health issues from Fort McMurray fire linger but human contact helps: study

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For many of the residents who fled for their lives as a ferocious wildfire ripped through Fort McMurray in 2016, the psychological scars still linger. 

Newly published research suggests the fire cast a lasting shadow over the lives of many residents who are still experiencing elevated rates of depression and related mental-health problems.

« There’s been a big jump, » said Vincent Agyapong, a psychiatrist and University of Alberta professor whose paper was published Saturday in the International Journal of Mental Health and Addictions.

But the research also revealed a way to help dispel the darkness.

Agyapong was working in Fort McMurray when the fire that came to be known as « The Beast » hit the city that May. He helped patients in the hospital get to safety before fleeing himself.

When he returned to his clinical practice in the city, after the immediate chaos subsided, he realized he had a chance to learn something about resilience.

« We thought it was an opportune time to change the focus to actually looking at the mental-health impacts of the Fort McMurray wildfire, » he said.

Agyapong and his colleagues developed an extensive survey that included questions about age, employment, where people were before the fire, how exposed they were, how much media they followed and their clinical history.

The team received 486 completed responses.

Previously reported results found the rate of probable post-traumatic stress disorder was 12.8 per cent — more than 10 times the normal rate for Alberta.

Agyapong’s research used standard psychiatric tests to conclude the fire correlated to a much broader set of problems.

The survey found that six months after flames tore through parts of the city, almost 15 per cent of respondents were suffering from some type of major depressive disorder. The rate was 17 per cent for women and 10 per cent for men. The average Alberta rate is 3.3 per cent.

Those disorders were also associated with substance abuse.

« We found that those that presented with (depressive disorder) were far more likely to present with alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder as well as nicotine dependence, » Agyapong said.

The survey found those with depression symptoms were roughly twice as likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

Preliminary results from further studies suggest those problems persist.

The researchers surveyed people who were visiting a health-care facility for any reason in November 2017, 18 months after the fire. Nearly one-quarter of respondents met the criteria for anxiety disorders and over 13 per cent for PTSD.

Agyapong cautioned that the data from that survey hasn’t been published and isn’t comparable to the previous survey. Still, he suggests that if one-quarter of people seeing their family doctor have a major depressive disorder, « that’s a huge proportion. »

« We found out 15 per cent fulfil the criteria for an alcohol use disorder and nine per cent fulfil the criteria for a substance abuse disorder. These are large numbers that we cannot just discount. »

It’s not just help in the moment. It’s also help that’s going to protect their mental health down the line.-Vincent Agyapong

Agyapong’s study also looked at what kept people resilient and protected them. The biggest single factor was human contact and support.

« Those who reported they received no support were about 13 times more likely to present with a major depressive disorder compared to those who reported they received high levels of support.

Emotional and social support as simple as a phone call were more important than material support from governments or the Red Cross, Agyapong found. It even helped with the loss of a home or business.

« Receiving support from family and friends can actually protect you from possible major depressive disorder, » Agyapong said.

‘Recovery takes time’ 

Alberta Health Services says there has been more demand for mental-health services since the fire. The agency has responded by making more counsellors and clinical support workers available to the community.

Although it doesn’t have before-and-after numbers, the department reports having 51,084 client « contacts » about mental health between May 10, 2016, and June 30, 2018. Alberta Health still averages more than 1,200 visits a month to community addiction and mental-health services in Fort McMurray.

« Wildfire disasters are associated with a negative impact on the mental and physical health of those affected and those effects can be delayed in onset and can persist over several years, » said spokeswoman Kirsten Goruk. « Recovery takes time and some residents are still in various stages of recovery. »

Agyapong said the survey has implications for any community that suffers a disaster.

« It’s important for the community to pull together and for family members, friends, and relatives of people to actually reach out to them on the phone and offer every practical help that they can be able to offer.

« It’s not just help in the moment. It’s also help that’s going to protect their mental health down the line. »

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Fort McMurray region’s Indigenous groups support oilsands mine, company tells review panel

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The company that hopes to build a massive oilsands project north of Fort McMurray says it has secured the support of all 14 Indigenous groups in the region.

On the first day of hearings before a joint-review panel, company officials said Teck Resources Ltd. has signed participation agreements with the Dene, Cree and Métis communities whose traditional territories intersect with the proposed mine.

The company’s $20.6-billion Frontier oilsands mine project is undergoing public hearings in Fort McMurray before the Alberta Energy Regulator and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

The mine’s lease areas, 110 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, overlap with traditional Indigenous lands and the territory of the threatened Ronald Lake bison herd.

But the land for the mine, a total of 292 square kilometres, or an area about half the size of Edmonton, would not be disturbed all at once.

Map showing the location of the Ronald Lake Bison Reserve in relation to a proposed oilsands mine planned by Teck Resources Ltd. (CBC News Graphics)

At Tuesday’s hearing, Teck officials announced the final Indigenous group from the region, the Mikisew Cree First Nation of Fort Chipewyan, had signed an agreement.

No company has ever obtained more such agreements before a public hearing to review the environmental and socio-economic impacts of an open-pit oilsands mine, said Kieron McFadyen, vice-president of energy for the Vancouver-based company.

Chief: ‘I used to be anti-development’

Archie Waquan, chief of the Mikisew Cree, told CBC News the agreement marks a personal change for him. 

« I think Teck has learned from Suncor and Syncrude and they want to do better, » Waquan said. « I used to be anti-development. I have to say if I don’t get on the train, I am going to be chasing the train. »

Waquan would not divulge details about the agreement but said it would allow Indigenous groups to hold Teck to account if the company doesn’t follow through on its promises to protect the environment.

Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Archie Waquan attends the opening of Fort Hills oilsands mine on Sept. 10, 2018. (David Thurton/ CBC)

Some of the region’s Indigenous groups say they still have concerns about the project.

Waquan said his First Nation will call on the federal government to create a buffer zone around Wood Buffalo National Park and a protected area for the free-roaming Ronald Lake bison herd.

Teck officials told the panel the company will support adding those requirements to its application.

Bullying Indigenous groups?

During cross-examination Tuesday, Indigenous groups in the Northwest Territories argued they weren’t properly consulted about the project.

McFadyen said given that the Kátł’odeeche First Nation and the Northwest Territory Métis Nation are so far from the proposed mine, the company saw no need to sign agreements with those groups.

When the joint-review panel finishes its five-week public hearing it will submit a report to the federal minister of environment and climate change. 

As of Monday, the panel had 200 working days before that report is due.

Greenpeace’s Mike Hudema, whose group opposes the project, accused Teck of bullying Indigenous groups into side deals.

Hudema said many communities were forced to compromise because they know regulators have never rejected an oilsands application and will likely approve this one. 

« That’s not living up to our commitment to Indigenous peoples and Indigenous reconciliation, » Hudema said. « When they feel forced into a decision they don’t want to make. »

Indigenous groups support Teck’s Frontier oilsands mine

Here’s a list of Indigenous groups that have signed agreements with Teck:

1. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

2. Mikisew Cree First Nation

3. Fort McKay First Nation

4. Fort Chipewyan Métis

5. Fort McKay Métis

6. Fort Mc Murray Métis 1935

7. Fort McMurray First Nation #468

8. Métis Nation of Alberta- Region One and it’s member locals

9. Athabasca Landing Local # 2010

10. Buffalo Lake Local # 2002

11. Conklin Local # 193

12. Lac La Biche Local # 1909

13. Owl River Local # 1949

14. Willow Lake Local # 780

Connect with David Thurton, CBC’s Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

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