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Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation…

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (original 2013; edition 2013)

by Dan Fagin

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2052957,211 (4.18)59
Title:Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
Authors:Dan Fagin
Info:Bantam (2013), Hardcover, 560 pages
Collections:Early Reviewers, Your library

Work details

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin (2013)

  1. 00
    The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager (sweetbug)
    sweetbug: The Demon Under the Microscope traces the history of the development of antibiotics. It tells the stories of many scientific discoveries and their connections to events in European history through WWII. Toms River is a more modern take on the same type of story, tracing the history of dye manufacturing and its connection to an epidemic of childhood cancer cases in a small town in New Jersey. Both are written as great stories, with lots of details on the lives of the people (doctors, patients, families and community members) involved.… (more)

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Toms River is non-fiction that reads like a novel. It straddles several genres – journalism, history, science – in its account of a near epidemic of cancer in the children of Toms River, New Jersey, a prominent Superfund clean-up site. There’s lots of information about the town, pollutants, affected families and the eventual clean-up and settlement but it never bogs down. There’s just enough scientific terminology to explain the link between exposure and disease. What really stands out in this book are the affected families and their battles with both the companies responsible for the contamination and the government agencies responsible for the safety of their town’s water and air. I’m not surprised this won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction for 2014.

I received this book for free through the Goodreads First Reads program.
( )
  wandaly | Jun 30, 2016 |
Fagin's subtitle is a little misleading: In the end, there was no salvation for the families of Toms River, N.J., who suspected but ultimately were unable to prove without a doubt that environmental pollution from two large chemical manufacturers were responsible for a cluster of childhood cancers in their town. But science there is plenty, as Fagin painstakingly explores the evolution of our understanding of health hazards caused by exposure to chemicals and other environmental toxins.

To explain the issues involved, Fagin moves back and forth across the centuries to trace the evolution both of the study of what causes disease and the discovery and development of man-made dyes extracted from coal tar and other noxious substances, all of which required copious amounts of extremely dangerous chemicals to separate the gooey sludge into its component elements that could then be processed into dyes and plastics. From the standpoint of the 21st century it is horrifying to read how cavalierly these early chemical manufacturers treated the toxic waste that their manufacturing processes produced, generally dumping it into the nearest river or pouring it out on the ground. The problem, of course, was that no one knew the health hazards of exposure to these chemicals and even fewer people cared. And as the science improved, and the toxic implications became more clear, the drive for profits invariably triumphed over hazard mitigation.

I went into this book expecting to learn more about a big bad evildoer. But what I learned is that there was no one big evil entity in Toms River; rather, there were a whole lot of smaller evils working together to protect their own interests at a tragic cost to the citizens of Toms River. Sure, the two chemical companies who dumped most of the hazardous waste were to blame, but so was the local water utility, who conspired with the polluters to cover up proven contamination of the town's water supply because they worried about being able to meet the city's demands for water if they shut down the affected wells. And the local, state, and federal regulatory agencies who were meant to ensure that industry complied with safe disposal requirements were unwilling and unable to enforce their own rules, generally choosing to impose token fines or no punishment at all even when a company was caught polluting red-handed. And the people of Toms River bear some responsibility themselves: There were signs of potential problems with pollution but city officials looked the other way. They and the workers themselves were unwilling to risk angering the area's largest private employer, where blue-collar jobs were plentiful and paid good wages.

In the end, the catalyst to force local and state regulators to take seriously the existence of a cluster of childhood cancers caused by environmental pollution was a woman whose son was born with brain cancer (I honestly had no idea such a thing was even possible, and I found it a horrifying thing to contemplate). She gradually became convinced that her son and many other children had been hurt by contaminated water, and she gathered together the parents of other cancer-stricken children to demand answers.

Unfortunately, even once the forces of epidemiology were unleashed, answers were thin on the ground. Even after years and years and millions of dollars spent on water testing, case studies, and testing of potential carcinogens in animal studies, science ultimately could not prove that contaminated water caused the cluster of childhood cancers in Toms River. It was a frustrating conclusion, but Fagin did an excellent job of showing just how limited the science is into what causes cancer, and how hard it is to detect clusters of cancer in residential areas, even now in the 2010s. Fagin is careful to present the research results without bias, which makes it clear that while there was almost certainly a correlation between exposure to the tainted water supply and childhood cancer, no test or study was ever able to create a definitive causal link.

Fagin covers a lot of ground in this book, and sometimes the science and jumping back and forth in time got a bit mind-boggling, but overall I found it clearly presented and well-written for non-expert readers like me. I learned a lot, very little of it reassuring in terms of the state of our understanding of the dangers of chemical contamination or our ability to prevent the next pollution-caused health hazard. ( )
  rosalita | Jun 27, 2016 |
I picked this book up for a couple of reasons. I work in an academic library that serves a Public Health program (among others), and I thought reading about a landmark case would be helpful. I also was just personally curious about how bad the pollution actually is in New Jersey. (For my non-American readers, there’s a running joke that New Jersey is the “stinky armpit” of the United States, due to the pollution).

The short version of what I got out of it is that I researched and bought the best reasonably priced water filtration pitcher for my household and will scold my husband if he drinks water directly from the sink instead of from the pitcher. The more academic version is that I learned that epidemiology is not as straight-forward as it seems, and things we can know just by looking at the situation are not easily proved. Additionally, what a woman puts into her body during pregnancy is much more important than what a young child eats or drinks.

The book is written in an investigative journalism style. If you’re comfortable reading the science section of the New York Times or something similar, you will be fine reading this book. Some of the science was new to me, but it was well-explained. On the negative end, the writing can sometimes be a bit sensationalistic. For instance, at one point the author assumes to know the reason why some people leave a meeting, jumping to the most sensational reason–that they were “repulsed” (loc 5441). (If he knows for sure why they left because he interviewed them, he does not make that clear). Most statements that are clearly factual are well-cited, however. Although the book is well-written and interesting, it simply reads as dense. I often found myself wondering if he could have maybe sped up the delivery a bit. It periodically felt like a slog, even though I was quite interested in the topic.

The book starts with introducing one of the children who was born with neuroblastoma, a particularly nasty form of childhood cancer. Then it flashes back to the arrival of CIBA in the 1950s. This clearly establishes the reader’s empathy with the children with cancer from the get-go. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s not exactly unbiased.

So let’s get to what I learned. Here are the unequivocally bad things that CIBA did:

*They claimed to residents that only “the purified effluent, clear, neutral and harmless to fish life, is discharged into the Toms River” (loc 671)
*When residents complained about pollution, instead of taking pollution-minimizing measures, they just re-adjusted their schedule so that most of the discharge happened at night when residents couldn’t see it. (loc 1071)
*CIBA came to Toms River after being kicked out of Europe and the Midwest for their pollution but didn’t change their practices at all. They simply pursued the location with the least oversight. (For non-American readers, at the time, there were not the national pollution laws in place in the US that there are now. It was more overseen on a state-by-state level).
*CIBA hid the cancer rate of employees from employees
*The CIBA water fountains were too toxic for their employees to drink from–they actually stank.
*The various governmental protection agencies repeatedly found violations at CIBA, for instance, their toxic waste pits were inappropriately lined.

Here’s what I learned about cancer:

* “Cancer is not one disease but many–more than 150, by most definitions. their only common characteristic is supercharged cell division, growth run amok.” (loc 1842)
*A swollen lymph node over the left collarbone is an early warning sign of cancer. (loc 1873)
*“Between ages 5 and 69, the likelihood of getting cancer in any particular year rises with each year of life, and it does so in increasingly large intervals: from about one in nine thousand in the fifth year of life to about one in fifty-seven in the sixty-ninth year.” (loc 1882)
*“Childhood cancer incidence jumped by more than one-third between 1975 and 2005–more than twice as much as overall cancer incidence.” (loc 1889)
*The second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking is radon. (loc 2343)
*Pregnant women’s consumption of polluted tap water was much more correlated with later childhood cancer than children’s consumption of it themselves (60% more likely vs 8% more likely). (loc 6757)

What I learned about Public Health epidemiology can’t be summed up easily in a bullet-pointed list. Basically, epidemiological studies are incredibly difficult, particularly when the toxic event has already passed. Study methods rely on things like patient recall of what they did day-to-day and massively complicated retroactive restructurings of how the water supply worked and which person got which well-water. The groups of people effected seem large to consumers but in the matter of actual epidemiological numbers are in fact quite small. Too small to easily prove something. As little as one extra child having cancer can be enough for the percent to appear to skyrocket but that could easily be explained as one of the normal abnormalities. A glitch, basically, that is normal when you look at a large population as a whole. Thus, even though people can look at a group and say, “Hey they seem to have a lot of cancer,” it could just be a chance cluster. Or appear like a large number but isn’t actually when you look at the charts over time. Or it could appear like a large number but actually be difficult to prove, numerically, that it is. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health, is quoted in the book as saying, “A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large even an epidemiological study can detect it.” (loc 7495) The government is reluctant to investigate these types of cases, because they take a long time, are expensive (Toms River cost over $10 million), are embarrassing, and often work out without anything being able to be proven anyway. In the United States, cancer registries may only be looked at by government agencies, due to privacy laws, so this means that if the government doesn’t look into it, no one can. The book ends on the horrifying note:

"Clusters of rare cancers like the one in Toms River may actually be much more common than we can discern with the crude statistical tools of small-number epidemiology. In other words, many more pollution-induced cancer clusters may be out there, but we don’t see them and we rarely even bother to look." (loc 7535)

In the end, the book was interesting, yet a bit of a struggle to get through, as it was quite densely-written. I learned a lot about how epidemiology and public health actually work in the United States, and I was terrified of basically everything (my own tap water, weird smells in the air) the whole time I was reading it and for a few weeks afterwards. I’m still pretty freaked out by my tap water, honestly.

Overall, I would recommend this book to readers with a vested interest in better understanding epidemiology and public health, particularly in the United States, regardless of how uncomfortable knowing these facts might make them. To those who might not be up to the intensive read I would say: be vocal about environmental protection where you live, be careful what you put into your body especially if you are or will be pregnant, and seriously consider filtering your water no matter where you live or how good it tastes. Chemicals we think now are safe we may end up finding out later are not. That is certainly what the mid-20th century taught us.

Check out my full review. (Link will be live February 1, 2016).

Note: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. ( )
1 vote gaialover | Jan 30, 2016 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Such a compelling story and demonstrates a lot about the limits of environmental litigation. I have a lot of family in Toms River and the surrounding area and had heard a little bit about increased rates of kids with medical problems, but had no idea about what had actually gone on there. The author was able to make complicated science and statistical issues understandable and frame the facts in a compelling way. I was a little unsatisfied by the ending, but that is more because real life doesn’t always lend itself to tidy resolutions. I also really appreciated the map in the front of the book which helped me keep track of where things were happening (and relate it to my own mental map of the area). ( )
  DDay | Sep 10, 2015 |
Looking for a place where they can manufacture fabric and industrial dyes and dump its chemical waste easily with little questioning from the public, a large chemical company (the name changes several times), constructs a plant in a small town known as Toms River in the 1950s. The plant is able to dump its chemical for years without question, even turning the river purple at one point, thanks in part to the silence of government adage vids. Later come cancer clusters, public outrage and investigations, buit takes decades. It's horrifying and facinating. The author intersperses the modern events with the history of science and chemistry that had a direct impCt on those events. It's an interesting story also because the expectation is for a clear resolution, which doesn't come. The results of the studies and negotiations and everything are vague and frustrating. People have to figure out their own sense of salvation in the end. ( )
  andreablythe | Jun 22, 2015 |
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"..surely a new classic of science reporting"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 055380653X, Hardcover)

The riveting true story of sixty years in the life of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a fascinating scientific detective story, and an unforgettable cast of characters into a sweeping narrative in the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

One of New Jersey’s seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.

In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.

A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, Toms River is a tale of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect, and of a few brave individuals who refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.

Advance praise for Toms River
Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town. Along the way—as we meet chemists, businessmen, doctors, criminals, and outraged citizens—we see how Toms River is actually a microcosm of a world that has come to depend on chemicals without quite comprehending what they might do to our health.”—Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex
“At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town's struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe
“A thrilling journey through the twists and turns of cancer epidemiology, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin takes us on a breathtaking tour through a wide terrain of topics—cancer, the environment, carcinogenesis and prevention—yet manages to keep us engaged with deeply personal stories. He handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.”—Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:58 -0400)

Recounts the decades-long saga of the New Jersey seaside town plagued by childhood cancers caused by air and water pollution due to the indiscriminate dumping of toxic chemicals.

(summary from another edition)

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