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Are firehouse saunas just there to make you feel good?

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The recent trend of using saunas to sweat out toxins after a fire is, so far, not getting scientific support. The most recent look at the concept of sweating out the bad stuff provides nothing that indicates firehouse saunas are anything more than wishful thinking. The study, published in “Environmental Journal”, says only a minuscule amount of environmental pollutants will leave our bodies through pores.

It’s not hard to find claims from sauna manufacturers, retailers and others that paint a different picture, including this one from a website post about a sauna donation to a firehouse in Wisconsin: “The heat from infrared saunas penetrates up to two inches deep into the skin, allowing the body to detoxify and get rid of harmful chemicals firefighters endure such as carcinogens from smoke inhalation.” Here’s a video from Canada that also makes the case for firehouse saunas.

It makes you wonder why fire chiefs are taking the claims at face value and aren’t even questioning whether there is science behind the idea of cancer fighting saunas. On the other hand, the cancer scourge is so prevalent in the fire service, it’s not hard to understand why we want to believe these claims without scientific back-up. I’m less excusing of news organizations – as in the story at the top of this post – that aren’t asking the critical questions.

Erika Engelhaupt summarized the study for nationalgeographic.com. I encourage you to read the entire article and the study, but here are some excerpts:

Recently published calculations back up what scientists have been screaming into their pillows for years: Sweating out toxins is a myth.

For most pollutants, they’re so low that they’re essentially meaningless, says Pascal Imbeault, who led the new study. Imbeault is an exercise physiologist at the University of Ottawa in Canada who’s studying pollutants that are stored in body fat. Known as persistent organic pollutants, these include pesticides, flame retardants, and now-banned polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which are still found in the environment.

Yet spas and sauna makers continue to assert their detox benefits. Fire departments in Texas and Indiana have even bought infrared saunas on the premise that firefighters will sweat out chemicals they’re exposed to in smoke, and that this will prevent cancer. While saunas may be soothing and have other benefits, the cancer-prevention claim has not been proven.

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