In our volunteer fire hall just after Christmas, we listened to a Minnesota state college instructor discuss why the death rate from cancer and heart disease is significantly higher among firefighters than in the general population. The short answer: hydrogen cyanide. It’s the same substance formerly employed to execute criminals in gas chambers. Source? Burning petrochemicals.

It’s no surprise — at least not to firefighters — that building construction and furnishings have markedly changed in the past four decades. The average home now incorporates 3,000 pounds of petroleum per floor, in the form of everything from insulation to sofa cushions. As President George W. Bush once said, “we are addicted to oil.”

The message to firefighters: “This stuff is killing you.” Indeed, it was pedagogically illuminating that our instructor was coughing. He’d recently taken an ambulance to an emergency room after smoke exposure at a structure fire, and was still suffering the effects. He blamed himself. He said he’d neglected to wear enough PPE (personal protective equipment) for the situation he’d encountered. That was our takeaway: Be sure to wear full turnout gear and an SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) anytime you are exposed to smoke.

Sound advice, of course, and nothing new, but with more emphasis than I’ve experienced in 34 years in the fire service. And yes, your pants, coat, gloves and hood will out-gas hydrogen cyanide and other toxins after the fire, so don’t put them in your POV (privately owned vehicle), the primary transport to and from an incident for most volunteers, and don’t take them home to expose your family. It’s best to launder your PPE frequently, though not at home. In short, your “protective” gear, unless brand-new, is hazmat, and should be treated accordingly. If you are able. A washer suited to the task costs about $25,000. Like so many discussions about insidious industrial poisons, the entire session supported an air of unreality. What in the world are we doing to ourselves?

During a question-and-answer period one of our firefighters asked, “How come we didn’t know this before?”

Well, the basic information was out there, and we did “know” in a technical, bloodless way. After all, no brand of smoke is vitamin-enriched. Even that evocative whiff of campfire aroma may contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide, and certainly spreads carbon monoxide and particulates. In our workaday training, we’ve noted the toxicity of smoke. But the video we watched that evening, and our hacking presenter, brought it home in a finally trenchant way.

More familiar to our members is a persistent debate between the fire service and the building industry regarding “lightweight construction.”

For example, the roofs in new residential structures are supported by 2-by-4-inch trusses with thin metal gusset plates joining the components. The trusses are strong and cheap, but when the house catches fire, those gusset plates can fail quickly — at a measly 350 degrees — leading to sudden and catastrophic collapse of the entire roof. When a single piece of a truss goes, the integrity of the entire system is lost. Firefighters have been killed by fires that in older, beefier-built homes would have been a relatively minor issue.

The construction industry has not said to us directly or officially (so far as I know): “tough luck.” But that attitude was expressed by an affluent resident of San Diego. A few years ago, when his home was threatened by one of southern California’s perennial wildfires and local news media were reporting that his particular subdivision might not be safely defensible, the man insisted that firefighters’ job was to “risk their lives” for his evacuated house. Excuse me?

But that very message was also the subtext of the hydrogen cyanide program: This is reality; deal with it.

OK, in the short term we must. However, where is the law that demands we lodge 3,000 pounds of petrochemicals on each floor of our houses? When you think about that for a moment, isn’t it kind of nuts?

One of the latest challenges for fire departments in Minnesota and other parts of the nation and world are oil trains coming from the shale fields. In July 2013, at Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, tank cars hauling Bakken crude exploded, killing 47 people and destroying half the town. Several months later, another tank car blew up near Casselton, N.D., and the state’s former Gov. (and Casselton native) George Sinner said the oil trains represented a “ridiculous threat.”

True, but don’t sweat it. There is a plan afoot to help prepare fire departments for the ridiculous — details pending. It shouts volumes that the knee-jerk reaction is to expedite another means for firefighters to die.

Commerce trumps all, even common sense. But who says we must haul oil by train? For that matter, who says we have to frack volatile shale oil out of the ground in the first place? Around the globe there are locales so degraded and contaminated by oil extraction and other mining that they are christened “sacrifice zones.” The Niger delta in Africa is one, for example, and the Bakken is following suit. Lac-Mégantic is one, albeit inadvertently.

There are also sacrifice people: firefighters.

I can hear my fire service colleagues protesting: Hey, it’s our duty to protect our communities, to take risks for others! Leaving aside for now how little you can really do with an exploding oil tank car, yes, we’ve accepted the responsibility to protect our people and places. But over the long term, isn’t it better to nullify threats in the first place?

We don’t have to simply accept the notion that there is no alternative to the oil addiction. We are not compelled by some universal truth or force to stay the toxic course. All current (and past) evidence points to the fact that producing and burning fossil fuels is seriously damaging the biosphere of our planet, not to mention ourselves. The fact of human-induced climate change was established decades ago, when it was referred to as the “greenhouse effect.” The science behind it is basic, and despite the public-relations efforts of oil and coal companies, the view of 97 percent of climatologists — in peer-reviewed journals — is finally gaining traction.

For me, it’s helpful to remember that oil and coal are the remains of ancient, extinct life forms, like a gargantuan underground compost pile and cemetery. We’re burning old corpses. How crude is that?

Though it would be wise to transition away from the petroleum paradigm overnight, shifting to proven renewables and muscular conservation, we won’t repent that quickly. But some things definitely could happen fast — at least in regard to firefighters. I have a modest proposal.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation reveals it would cost about $20 million for every volunteer fire department in Minnesota to be provided with a washer suitable for cleaning the deadly toxins from our PPE. I believe it would be just and fair for the oil industry, particularly the shale frackers, to provide those funds. After all, some of their executives make more money than that in salary each year.

Let’s share the wealth to help mitigate a problem. After all, incomes are being redistributed by the market all the time, just mostly upward. Let’s not forget that the so-called “free market” rules were temporarily waived when Wall Street and the big automakers needed a multibillion-dollar bailout from we-the-taxpayers. Likewise, in a congenial reversal, the fossil-fuel industry should devote cash to buffer the toxicity of its product, to help protect the people who help to clean up the messes.

Recall the old quip from the late billionaire oil magnate J. Paul Getty: “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not the mineral rights.” I take it to mean — as Getty likely did not — that those who benefit the most should also give the most. As physicist Amory Lovins has written, “Economies are supposed to serve human ends, not the other way around. We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master, and a worse religion.”

 

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books.