March 10, 2000 Volume 7, Number 12


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Study looks at oilsands effect on animals’ drinking water

By Ann Dumonceaux

Leaving a stable career in engineering to pursue studies in toxicology was not an easy decision for PhD student Vince Rogers.

"I liked engineering," admits Rogers "but I always knew I wanted to to do something in the living world, the biological field."

Rogers was recently awarded the prestigious CCPE-Meloche Monnex scholarship for his ongoing work on the effects of environmental contaminants in the oil sands industry.

This national award – valued at $7,500 – is directed at professional engineers conducting post-graduate research in non-engineering fields.

"It’s aimed at encouraging engineers to broaden their knowledge," explains Rogers, "but the research must still contribute to engineering in some capacity."

The importance of Rogers’ research has also attracted the attention of industry.

Rogers’ two-year NSERC Industrial Postgraduate Scholarship, worth $17,500 per year, is partly sponsored by Syncrude, a major player in the oil recovery project in the Athabasca oil sands. Noting that the company invited the investigation of their processing methods, Rogers is quick to commend Syncrude’s "proactive approach to looking at their own environmental impacts."

Rogers’ research focuses on the effects of a group of compounds known as naphthenic acids – compounds which are associated with all petroleum deposits.

"The reason they’re a concern in the oil sands," explains Rogers, "is related to the way oil is extracted. They have to use a lot of water to process the oil sands, and as a result, that water is contaminated with a number of compounds, but in particular, naphthenic acids."

Though naphthenic acids are known to be a problem with aquatic organisms, their effects on mammals have yet to be studied.

However, because the ever-increasing holding ponds which contain this contaminated water are not completely separated from the environment, Rogers points out that "there’s nothing really stopping animals from drinking from the water, and there’s nothing stopping this water from leaking into streams."

While Rogers notes that naphthenic acids levels would be much lower in associated streams and ground water, he cautions that "low level exposure to chemicals can still be problematic in the long term."

Describing his basic objective as "to determine the effects, if any, of naphthenic acids on mammals," Rogers isolated naphthenic acids in water samples shipped from the Athabasca oil sands to the Toxicology Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

Under the supervision of Karsten Liber, Director of the Toxicology Centre, Rogers then began studying the short- and long-term effects of these acids, as well as their reproductive consequences in mammals.

While acute toxicity testing indicates that high doses of naphthenic acids affect several physiological systems, Rogers states that "it’s too early to make conclusions yet. Results of the recent chronic and reproductive studies will reflect more realistic exposure scenarios."

Returning to university, Rogers decided on toxicology because of its applicability to other disciplines.

"I knew that there was a sort of niche where I could combine my engineering background and the toxicology and do environmental engineering or industrial toxicology-type projects that would draw on both backgrounds."

Working with an industrial partner within an interdisciplinary-based graduate program like toxicology has allowed Rogers to accomplish this goal.

Vince Rogers
combines engineering and toxicology

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