GREENFIELD — With early studies showing that firefighters are three times as likely as the general population to develop cancer, Greenfield Fire Chief Jon Cohn decided it was time to try something.
That something is a sauna where it is hoped that firefighters can sweat out the toxins carried by smoke that get into their bodies through their skin. The sauna arrived at the firehouse last week to be used after firefighters return from fires.
Cohn pointed to informal evidence that the sauna might work.
"Anecdotally, any firefighter or their family will tell you, a firefighter will smell like smoke days after fire (and) smoke exposures," a Greenfield Fire Department memo says. "After a light workout and sauna use, the smoke smell is gone and does not linger for days."
Fire officials say they hope that means firefighters are absorbing fewer toxins or that the chemicals are not allowed to linger and circulate.
First in county
Greenfield is the first fire department in Milwaukee County to utilize a sauna, the memo says.
The higher levels of cancer in firefighters should not come as a complete surprise, the memo notes.
Structural elements and home furnishings are no longer “organic” but comprised of synthetic materials, plastics, glues and toxic finishes. Smoke at a fire now contains more than 800 chemicals.
"These byproducts are far more deadly than those given off from traditional furnishings," the memo says.
Gear not enough
The breathing apparatus and gear that firefighters wear protect them from breathing in smoke and to some extent from the heat of fires, but their skin is hyper-absorbent due to heat and exertion, the memo notes.
"Turnout gear does not filter contaminants and firefighters are absorbing these toxic chemicals," the memo says. For every five-degree increase in body temperature, skin absorption rates increase by up to 400 percent, it says. Synthetic materials in modern structures and furnishings also burn hotter, subjecting firefighters to more heat than ever before, it says.
The Greenfield Fire Department has already taken steps to help firefighters be healthy:
- Implemented aggressive education and enforcement for the use of breathing apparatus during fire and smoke conditions.
- Installed a new exhaust system to capture exhaust from vehicles within the station. (Grant and local funding).
- Installed turnout gear washing extractor in the station to make decontaminating gear convenient.
- Purchased a second set of gear for every firefighter so if firefighters go to a fire during their shift they can immediately wash their gear and wear a clean set the remainder of that shift.
- Invested in workout equipment that rivals professional gyms.
- Created a peer fitness training program that teaches firefighters to become fitness trainers, hold classes, and help and encourage other members.
- Held a “Biggest Loser” competition with 300 pounds lost.
- Advocated to legislators in Washington, D.C. to create a firefighter cancer registry to ensure the proper collection of data to hone research.
The memo also notes that early studies also show:
- 68 percent of firefighters develop cancer, compared with 22 percent in the general population.
- The incidence of digestive, respiratory, oral and urinary cancers are considerably higher in firefighters and are the reasons why overall rates are so high.
- Some cancers like prostate, bladder, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are seen in higher-than-expected numbers, especially in younger firefighters.