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Will a sauna help prevent firefighter cancer? A study in St. Paul aims to find out

The St. Paul Fire Department is outfitting every station with a sauna, as firefighters step up for study.

ST PAUL, Minn. — A first-of-its-kind study happening right now in St. Paul, is looking into a potential cancer prevention tool for firefighters, but it's not a new device or medication, it's a sauna.

"By the end of the year, thanks to two generous donors, every fire station will have a sauna in them," said Deputy Fire Chief Roy Mokosso.

The saunas were donated by the St. Paul Fire Foundation, and they are being installed at the same time that a sauna study hopes to determine an added benefit.

"What we are hoping to find out, through this study, is if saunas can help reduce the amount of carcinogens that remain in our bodies after being exposed at fires," Mokosso said.

That study is being led by Dr. Zeke McKinney, an occupational and environmental medicine physician with the HealthPartners Institute and the University of Minnesota Medical School.

"Being able to prevent and reduce the risk of cancer in firefighters is, I think, everyone's primary interest," Dr. McKinney said.

Cancer is the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for firefighters, but Dr. McKinney says saunas have only recently been considered for prevention.

Dr. McKinney: "This was a funny thing that came up maybe four, five, six years ago. Firefighters had always been saying, they come out of a fire, they're covered in soot, they take a shower, they still smell like the fire. Some genius figured out, 'Hey, I get in the sauna and I don't smell like a fire anymore,' And so they concluded that it must be detoxifying them or getting these agents out of them."

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Kent Erdahl: "Now you're just trying to figure out, is it true?"

Dr. McKinney: "Exactly. The fire departments then came to me and said, 'Hey, Zeke, can you recommend that we buy saunas for this purpose' and I said, 'Well, there are definitely well-established health benefits of using saunas, particularly a cardiovascular benefits.' This issue of detoxification has not been studied in that way whatsoever."

Erdahl: "So how do you study this?"

Dr. McKinney: "We're taking urine samples from firefighters who are using a sauna and those who are not using a sauna, and sweat samples from people using the sauna, to find out. Number one, does metabolism change as a function of using the sauna, but also, can those carcinogens be found in the sweat directly itself."

Erdahl: "I'm going to guess that you didn't have too much recruiting firefighters to be part of this."

Dr. McKinney: (laughing) "Not this particular study. The harder part, though, is that we are actually doing 24-hour urine collections, so that's the part that people aren't as happy about."

Mokosso says it's a small price to pay for some promising sauna science.

"That's great for, not only us, but if the study proves to be beneficial for firefighters in our region, or nationally, then it would be an honor to be a part of that," he said.

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