Huntley firefighters use infrared saunas in effort to prevent cancer

Cancer is leading cause of firefighters' deaths outside of line of duty

HUNTLEY – After every fire and live fire training exercise, Huntley firefighters hop into a $4,700 taxpayer-funded sauna at one of the district’s three firehouses.

The three Sunlighten infrared saunas were bought with money from the district’s foreign fire insurance tax fund – a sometimes controversial tax, depending on how the board that oversees the money decides to spend it.

The Crystal Lake Foreign Fire Insurance Tax Board and the city’s firefighters labor union filed a lawsuit in August against the city and numerous city officials, alleging that they violated state laws when they zeroed out the foreign fire insurance tax imposed on out-of-state insurance companies.

The state’s foreign fire insurance tax is levied on fire insurance companies based outside of Illinois, such as Ohio-based Progressive or California-based Farmers Insurance, which are required to pay up to a 2 percent tax on all insurance policies with properties and companies within city limits.

A fire district’s foreign fire tax board can choose how to use the money for maintenance, use and benefit of the department, according to state statute.

For more than a year, the Huntley Fire Protection District has used saunas in hopes of sweating out cancer-causing toxins – although there is little medical research on the topic.

“The sauna is not a luxury item,” firefighter Josh Koelper said, adding that the district is taking an aggressive stance to prevent cancer in its workforce. “This is a tool the district and foreign fire tax board are using to combat this epidemic.”

Cancer is the leading cause of death in firefighters outside of the line of duty, surpassing heart disease, according to the International Association of Firefighters.

Huntley Foreign Fire Insurance Tax Board President Patrick Gordon said he knows of five or six department members who have had some form of cancer.

It’s important to note, Gordon said, that membership only knows about the diagnosis if a fellow member discloses it or is removed from duty because of it.

The infrared sauna puts the body into a fever state, where radical cells such as cancer cannot survive, Gordon said, adding that members were overwhelmingly supportive of the sauna purchases.

“Any time there is an exposure to anything that can be cancerous, whether it’s hazmats, smoke, anything – we’re using the sauna,” Huntley firefighter Rick Madsen said.

Within an hour of a fire or live fire training, Huntley firefighters complete a gross decontamination at the scene, return to the firehouse for a shower, hit the sauna, then take another shower.

Madsen said that before the extensive decontamination process was instituted, you could smell products of combustion at the firehouse. Now it’s rarely noticeable, he said.

“If you can smell it, you’re breathing it in,” Huntley Assistant Fire Chief Al Schlick said, adding that chemicals are so common in burning materials these days.

Gordon and other firefighters admit that there is not yet a lot of science backing up what they believe are the cancer-preventing benefits of sauna use.

“We could either sit back and wait for 20 years for all this data to get put together, or take the initiative on it,” Gordon said.

Huntley is one of several departments in Illinois to buy saunas for this use, and it’s the first in McHenry County. Fire departments in Indianapolis and Toronto also have them.

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