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Research finding ways to reduce risk of cancer for firefighters

"I had a surgery at Aurora to get a syst out in my chest; it was the leftover junk from tumor," said Rudi Betancourt.

While washing dishes during pizza night at the firehouse, Betancourt explained how he's back to work after beating cancer more than a year ago.

CBS 58 spoke with Betancourt, his fellow firefighter, Lt. Larry Derosier, and now-retired Kenosha firefighter Brad Pheiffer.

Click below to watch that story from February 2017:

1000P_FIREFIGHTERS AND _WDJT2AKC from CBS 58 News on Vimeo.

While the three are doing well now, dozens of firefighters lost their battle with cancer in the last year. That includes 47-year-old Lt. Kristen Ciganek of Milwaukee Fire Department.

"She was strong, she was positive, she was energetic. She was good at what she did," said Deputy Chief Aaron Lipski, Milwaukee Fire Department.

The newest numbers attribute 70 percent of line of duty deaths to cancer.

Even before that statistic, the problem caught the attention of researchers.

The Illinois Fire Service Institute, or IFSI, on the University of Illinois campus in Champaign was part of the first study to show firefighters are at a higher risk for cancer; it was published in 2013.

"You'll see them wiping their hands, wiping their neck, their face, wiping their facepiece," said Colonel Royal Mortenson, Director of the Illinois Fire Service Institute.

Practices to eliminate carcinogens are now integrated into any live-fire trainings at IFSI.

CBS 58 traveled to their 23-acre research and training facility to learn about a groundbreaking study that's been going on since 2016. Dr. Gavin Horn led the study that set out to find how effective cleaning firefighting gear was in eliminating carcinogens.

The two-part study exposed mannequins and then firefighter test subjects to live fire conditions.

"We can measure blood and breath and urine to see what firefighters have been exposed to," said Horn, the Director of Research at IFSI.

The study found cleaning the face, neck, and hands with wet wipes eliminates 54 percent of fire contamination, and using soap and a brush eliminates 85 percent.

To see more on the study and info gathered at IFSI, watch this web extra:

IFSI WEB EXTRA from CBS 58 News on Vimeo.

Milwaukee Fire Department and South Shore Fire Department have made the changes to wash gear and use wipes at the fire scene.

The study done at IFSI was able to track how to eliminate certain types of carcinogens, but NIOSH is working on a study to find the actual potential reduction in developing cancer.

Meanwhile, the state of Wisconsin recognized the connection. State lawmakers worked to help with the cost of care, giving disability or death benefits to firefighters diagnosed with certain types of cancer under the Wisconsin presumption law.

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