June 5, 2006

$17M, six-year study finds no link between oil and gas plant emissions, health of cattle

A $17-million, six-year study of cattle herds near oil and gas facilities in western Canada has found few associations between emissions and the overall health of cattle. The Western Canada Study of Animal Health Effects Associated with Exposure to Emissions from Oil and Natural Gas Facilities was completed this year and released last month by the Western Interprovincial Scientific Studies Association (WISSA), which says it is the most comprehensive of its kind ever completed.

The research was prompted by long-standing concerns of cattle producers that emissions from oil and gas facilities, often located on rangeland near their cattle herds, might cause reproductive failures or disease in the cattle. Researchers based at the University of Saskatchewan, led by principal researcher Dr Cheryl Waldner, collected and analyzed data from approximately 33,000 cattle in 205 herds in Alberta, Saskatchewan and northeast BC.

The study's purpose was to investigate potential associations between exposure to emissions from oil and natural gas facilities with the health and productivity of cattle. Its protocol was designed to ensure scientifically sound findings, which could help provide better information for decision-makers on the future development and implementation of recommendations regarding future practices. The project was subject to a continuing peer review process undertaken by a science advisory panel (SAP) of 11 leading international researchers and scientists.

From a broader perspective, "the most predominant pattern is that there were no associations between the measured exposures and most of the health outcomes," said Dr Tee Guidotti, co-chair of the science advisory panel, and chair of environmental and occupational health at the school of public health and health services, George Washington University Medical Centre, in Washington DC. "Where associations were found, some were small, and while statistically significant, the biological relevance and practical importance of the findings are unknown," he added.

One exception, said Dr Guidotti, may be an association found between exposure to sulfur dioxide (SO2) and a slight increase in calf mortality of 1 or 2% above the background at the highest measured levels of exposure. He noted, however, that the presence of an association alone does not prove these emissions caused a change in animal health.

The WISSA study, Dr Guidotti continued, "has been a massive and challenging undertaking, directed by an innovative management model, and conducted using advanced scientific methods." The scientific advisory panel, he said, views the study as an "important, statistically and scientifically valid benchmark study that can be the basis for more focused research in a number of areas."

"WISSA is a unique partnership that delivers definitive, independent scientific answers to the interrelationship of two key industries in Western Canada - oil and gas and cattle," said John Donner, head of the WISSA board of directors. "It has resulted in clear findings. We now need to go through these findings and the science behind them with interested stakeholders.

"It has also given us a wealth of information about Western Canadian herds, and we need to use that information for continuous improvements on herd management and, possibly, further research," Donner added.

WISSA is a not-for-profit organization created by the four western provincial governments to manage the independent, objective research study. Its board of directors includes members from the governments of Alberta, BC, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

More information, including an interpretive overview of the study and a technical summary, is available from study manager Michael O'Connell, 403/503-0794, or may be viewed on-line at https://www.wissa.info.

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