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IFD firefighters sweat out dangerous toxins to fight back against growing cancer epidemic

INDIANAPOLIS, IND. - Every year, hundreds of firefighters across the nation are diagnosed with cancer.

Researchers say firefighters are more at risk for the disease because crews are consistently exposed to contaminants and toxins from debris and flames.

“I was training with another station and one of the paramedics asked what is wrong with your neck. She felt it and looked at it and told me that you need to see a doctor.“I was diagnosed with nasal pharyngeal cancer in October of 2000. I was off work for 8 months,” said IFD Captain Tim McDonnell.

After the devastating diagnosis, McDonnell learned he was only one of dozens of local firefighters diagnosed with cancer.

“147 active and retired fireman that have cancer, survived cancer, or died from cancer within the last five years,” said Cpt. McDonnell.

A recent study by the Centers For Disease Control and prevention found that those numbers are growing, nationally. The most common cancers for firefighters are respiratory, digestive, and urinary.

Researchers say the dangerous and sometimes deadly toxins are released during fires. The hotter the temperature, the more toxins are absorbed into the body.

“For days after you fight a fire,  you get in the shower and you would smell the fire again…or your wife would say she could still smell it in your hair,” said Cpt. McDonnell.

Fed up with the growing cancer epidemic, McDonnell asked the department to use extra money in the budget to buy a detox sauna. He first saw the device at the Fire Department Instructor Conference in Indianapolis. It is a two person, 110 degree cube with two stationary bikes.

The ideas is to release the dangerous toxins before they can build up.

“It is not about sweating like you do at the gym. It is about breaking a sweat as soon as you can after the fire. You cool off, get hot again, and then take a shower,” said Cpt. McDonnell.

Right now, IFD station 44 is the only station to have this type of sauna. Fellow firefighter Amanda Geryak is grateful.

“We got back from a fire the other day, decontaminated our gear and then my Lieutenant and I jumped into the sauna for about 15 minutes. Within the first two minutes you are just sweating profusely. You could tell a big difference, the smell of the smoke was not stuck in my nose or my skin,” said Geryak.

IFD is working to raise money to buy a detox sauna for all of their fire stations. The department has been very proactive about protecting their crews from these dangerous and cancer-causing toxins.

Each fire station supplies their crew with two sets of gear, specialized cleansing kits in every truck, and works with all of the firefighters to get annual exams.