The Canadian government’s reports on oilsands emissions have likely underestimated health effects, according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The study by the University of Toronto focuses on emissions of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals created when fossil fuels are processed, among other things.

The study shows that Athabasca oilsands region (AOSR) PAH emissions reported in official environmental impact assessments are likely too low. The results of the study highlight the need for improved monitoring of PAH emissions, especially in light of the increasing expansion of oilsands operations, the authors note.

This also means that PAH concentrations in air, water, and food – which are estimated using official environmental emissions reports – may also be too low. “The potential therefore exists that estimation of future risk to humans and wildlife because of surface mining activity in the Athabasca oilsands region has been underestimated.”

Researchers found that government emissions data likely failed to account for PAH emissions from “tailing ponds,” toxic ponds that house waste byproduct from the oilsands extraction process. Their results suggest that PAH emissions could be two to three times higher than environmental impact assessments indicate.

Professor Frank Wania, one of the study’s authors, said that people live with similar concentrations of the chemicals every day in big cities such as Toronto. “All we are saying is that the basis for the human health risk assessment is flawed,” he told The Globe and Mail.

PAHs are a concern because they are persistent, meaning they stay in the environment for a long time. Humans and animals can be exposed to PAHs through breathing polluted air and through consuming food and water. Studies on mice have linked PAHs to birth defects, and breathing PAHs as well as skin contact with the chemicals have been associated with cancer in humans, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Less than a month ago, scientists discovered that mercury from oilsands operations is impacting a massive area around Alberta. Elevated levels of the neurotoxin were found in a “bull’s eye” area surrounding oilsands developments, and levels decreased with distance from the oilsands. Scientists say more research is needed, but there are indications of mercury build-up in some of the region’s wildlife, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Alisha is a writer and researcher with Ring of Fire. You can follow her on Twitter @childoftheearth.