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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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73None163,556 (4.19)36
Title:Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
Authors:Dan Fagin
Info:Bantam (2013), Hardcover, 560 pages
Collections:Early Reviewers, Your library

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




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Tom's River is a masterpiece. I can't imagine a better book on the topic of environmentally caused residential cancer clusters and the science of epidemiology. That is a mouthful, but if you ever wondered if something in the water supply can cause cancer, Tom's River is a case history horror story. And it goes beyond Tom's River, as the NYT review notes, Fagin "chose to weave entire tapestries of gorgeous subplot, among them a short history of the European dye industry, a longer exploration of industrial waste management, a detailed review of the molecular basis of cancer, and a careful history of occupational health." All of it fascinating and made accessible through 100s of characters and novelistic techniques. Curiously the day I finished the book there was news about another town in New Jersey (Paulsboro) that discovered industrial chemicals in its water supply, it's the same Tom's River story - outraged residents, officials who knew for a long time but kept quiet, a company that acknowledges it but denies wrong doing. Like plastics, Tom's River is the future.

Video: A Town Fights Back: The Toms River Story (17m) ( )
  Stbalbach | Mar 13, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
“The very big idea that would transform Toms River and reshape the global economy was born in 1856 in the attic laboratory of a precocious eighteen-year-old chemistry student named William Henry Perkin...” who was occupying a school break with experiments suggested by his mentor, August Wilhelm von Hoffman. The focus of his attention was coal tar, a waste product of coal converted into coal gas and coke. The hope was to synthesize quinine, an amine. The result was a bright purple residue that stuck to the test tube and transferred to a cotton wipe. This was not to be idly dismissed as a failure. In a world of expensive dyes made from snails or insects or lichens, aniline dyes made from industrial waste were phenomenal. Within six months, he had dropped out of school to build a factory near London.

In Basel Switzerland, on the Rhine river, three dye manufacturers (Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz) took advantage of lax patent laws and extended the idea to other coal tar constituents and a rainbow of colors. In 1920, these three formed a partnership and entered the US market by purchasing a factory in Cincinnati OH, on the Ohio River. As in Switzerland, waste was discharged into the river, and as in Switzerland, there were rumors about cancer and complaints about pollution and gestures of governmental concern. ”The Swiss could see what was coming, and they reacted in time-honored fashion: They made plans to skip town.” In 1952, they skipped to a rural area without a formal name, which became known as Toms River NJ. Cincinnati Chemical Works became Toms River Chemical Company.

The factory was built on sand and gravel. The company initially expected that separation of wells for water and lagoons for waste would be sufficient, but the ground was absorbent and the waste corroded the liners, in part because the company crushed waste drums for efficient use of space. By the mid 1950s, employees were complaining about the smell of drinking fountain water in company buildings. The company shifted waste containers to the river, where wells two miles downstream supplied water to the town. By the mid 1960s, employees who were also customers of Toms River Water Company recognized the smell of tap water at home. Neither company wanted to invite investigation, so the chemical company began piping waste to the ocean, and the water company closed the worst of the wells and added chlorine to the others. In 1972, the Clean Water Act established standards and a permit process, requiring waste treatment at an off-site facility, but the chemical company saved substantial money by not complying. This came to light in 1984, when a road buckled, and the ground underneath was found to be saturated with black liquid, traced to a wastepipe leak. A reporter published the list of chemicals from the permit application, and residents petitioned the EPA to refuse renewal.

Meanwhile, cancer. Here the book has bits of overlap with The Emperor of All Maladies in a history of cancer research and The Ghost Map in a history of epidemiology and mapping, and a thorough explanation of why a “cancer cluster” is so difficult to determine: everything clusters by chance, cancer is more ubiquitous than most people realize, cancer is not a single disease. Left to mere statistical analysis, things would have gone nowhere. Instead, a number of intensely persistent people got involved. Linda Gillick’s son was diagnosed with neuroblastoma; when he was 10 and had survived beyond expectations, she founded Oceans of Love and became “the hub of information about childhood cancer in Ocean County”. Lisa Boornazian was a nurse on a cancer ward in Philadelphia; she noticed a disproportionate number of cases from Toms River and mentioned this to her sister-in-law, an EPA hazardous waste specialist, who contacted an acquaintance at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, who requested a formal investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health, which sent a letter to local physicians, among them a friend of Linda Gillick. Loop closed, she contacted Jan Schlichtmann of A Civil Action. Behind the scenes, a chemist ran tests and read studies to determine exactly what the problem was with the water.

This book was a page turner from the start, weaving history and science and law and drama in impressive and fascinating detail. Sooo much more to it than I have briefly outlined. I bogged down somewhat in the court case at the end, but this is because the law aspect is not so much my thing, and the science by then was mostly done. Highly recommended.

(read 15 Mar 2013)
3 vote qebo | Sep 29, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
When I was younger, we visited friends of my parents who lived in Toms River. After the visit, we went either to my grandmother’s sister in Absecon or to my grandfather’s brother in Jersey City or to his summer home in Sea Girt. At about the time my Uncle Dave retired and my aunt’s husband died, necessitating her move to a retirement community, we no longer went to Toms River. However the time of the visits coincided with the beginning of Dan Fagin’s story in Toms River : a story of science and salvation. Although I have never gone back to Toms River, it still holds a special place in my childhood.

The book tells the story of one town, an industrial complex, politics and pollution of water and air. When Ciba began its plant in the early 1950’s and began their dye business, there was available land and a nearby river emptying into the ocean into which wastes could be placed without the state being concerned. The town drew its drinking water from municipal wells although some did have their own well supply of water. The population grew and so did the plant, even transferring workers from other locations. Within its boundaries, they had lots of land. What they didn’t dump into the river, they buried in their land. At the same time, a local farm allowed another chemical company’s waste to be buried on the site. Fast forward and factory workers were getting ill. But even more alarming, the incidence of childhood cancers was well above the averages for the rest of the state.

Fagin weaves together the narrative of the town and factory, the politicians and sick children, the investigators and the regulators with a history of chemistry and of cancer research, especially epidemiology. It’s not a pretty story but it needed to be told, if only to warn the world that this cancer clustering is happening again, especially in places like China and other developing countries with lax regulations for hazardous chemicals.

The book is meticulously footnoted although there is no separate bibliography. (There is also supplemental material in the endnote section which is more technical in nature than the main text and can be disregarded for the casual reader.) There is a map of Toms River, needed to see the proximity of the plant and the Reich farm to the water supply of the town. I most missed the index which will be available in the final copy of the book. I found that I wanted to check back on some facts and had to flip though the book to find the sections I wanted to re-read. Finally there is a list of all the people who were interviewed for the book, an impressive list. With a degree in chemistry, I have read many popular books on the topic and this is one of the better ones.

Fagin, a professor of journalism, has done his research on this book and backs up all statements with documentation. This book could have been a dry, scholarly volume, read only by persons in interested in cancer research and in the history of industrial chemistry. Instead it is a gripping story, well written and more fantastic than any novel, and it should be widely read. ( )
1 vote fdholt | Apr 7, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I received bound uncorrected proofs of Toms River, by Dan Fagin, from the publisher through the LT Early Reviewer program, and the review is based on that copy.

This book caught my interest because I used to live in South Jersey. It held my interest because the author really can write. Fagin took a story filled with complex issues and made it understandable and compelling. He even made the scientific stuff interesting and comprehensible for me, and I am NOT a science person.

This is not a happy book -- what book is that deals with toxic waste and cancer? But I think it's an important book, telling an important story and dealing with important issues.

Toms River is named for Toms River, NJ. In the 1950's, a Swiss-owned chemical company built a plant on a large tract of land on the edge of town. It became the biggest employer in town; company officials were highly visible and influential in community civic functions. The plant would also eventually become a major EPA Superfund clean-up site. At another location near town, toxic waste from another chemical company was dumped -- another Superfund site in the making. And, over the years, area residents began noticing an unusual number of pediatric cancer cases.

The main thread of the book is the story of how chemical waste was (mis) handled by Toms River Chemical and others who disposed of toxic chemicals in the area, of the growing concern over kids with cancer, and of residents' fight to prove that the cancers were linked to the toxic waste.

As background, the reader learns some history about the chemical industry and related environmental issues (especially regarding dyes, which were the primary product of Toms River Chemical when it opened). There is also information regarding the history of epidemiology, and its eventual use in matters of industrial medicine. While the scientific and historic information was more plentiful than I'd expected, I found it helpful for understanding the issues at stake, and quite interesting to read.

But it's in the narrative of what happened at the chemical plant and other contaminated sites, and of the fight to confront the mess and its possible consequences, that the heart of the book lies.

Dan Fagin has taken a highly complex subject, and presented it in a manner that is engaging and effective. The book appears to be well-documented, with ample end notes. I highly recommend this book, especially to readers interested in environmental issues. ( )
1 vote tymfos | Mar 31, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Tom's River is a meticulously researched thoroughly engrossing book about the consequences of industrial pollution. It's also scary as hell.

I began the book thinking that it was a great cautionary tale that thankfully wasn't in my back yard. But oh no, just a few pages in it turns out this New Jersey nightmare started in Cincinnati. Suddenly it was a lot more personal. What's in my water?

The author very skillfully wove together the origins of the Tom's River cancer clusters with the history of the chemical industry and medical/scientific research. He gives thereader enough information to understand what is happening without boring the. ( )
  woodsathome | Mar 31, 2013 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:23:56 -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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