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

by Dan Fagin

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3923366,197 (4.09)77
History. Science. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • Winner of The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award • “A new classic of science reporting.”—The New York Times

The riveting true story 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.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND KIRKUS REVIEWS

“A thrilling journey full of twists and turns, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin 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 complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller.”—NPR

“Unstoppable reading.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Meticulously researched and compellingly recounted . . . It’s every bit as important—and as well-written—as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—The Star-Ledger
 
“Fascinating . . . a gripping environmental thriller.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“An honest, thoroughly researched, intelligently written...
… (more)
  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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» See also 77 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
Outstanding book!
Industrial pollution on a monumental scale
Incompetent local, state, and federal agencies doing nothing to prevent it or stop it
A coordinated campaign to lie to the citizens
A excellent breakdown of why it is nearly impossible to prove cause and effect regarding cancer rates of those living near toxic sites.
Excellent book! Read it if you think the government is any better than the company’s doing the polluting. ( )
  zmagic69 | Mar 31, 2023 |
People familiar with the 1998 John Travolta movie “A Civil Action” will find similarities between that story and Dan Fagin’s book Toms River. Both deal with industrial chemical contamination of local water supplies with grave consequences. Toms River, the title and subject of Dan Fagin’s book, is a shore town in South Jersey, which at the latter part of the 20th century, started to experience high cancer rates, especially among children. Fagin’s book explains how carcinogens were getting into the local water supply, as well as the difficulty investigators had in tracing the source of the chemicals. What makes the story compelling is not just the historical facts, but hearing about advances in epidemiology, about the new technology needed to identify the contaminants and trace them back to the source, and more importantly, the personal stories of local families working to bring the evidence to light and to fight and insist that local officials look into the problem. If it wasn’t for the persistence of some of the local people fighting to be heard, the cause of the high cancer rate may never have been determined.

I had suspected that ”Toms River” might end up being a condemnation of "evil chemical companies" and inept regulators and inspectors, but significant to me was the recognition of the sad state of knowledge of environmental protection and impacts as recently as the 1950's and '60's. As Fagin mentions, the Ciba Chemical Company never appeared to realize that their wastes were causing a problem for the community at large. Yet they were able to recognize that their wastes were polluting their own water wells use for on-site services, and as a result they simply moved their discharge lines further away from their own water wells. Moving their discharges away from their on-site wells placed their wastes closer to the Toms River public water supply. And all that was done with the approval of State regulators, since the company's plans were "consistent" with practices in use at the time.

The end result was high concentrations of chemicals being introduced into the Toms River and local water wells. It’s ironic, but when Ciba Chemical mover to Toms River and opened a new dye plant in 1953, the Ciba spokesperson told locals that the facility would improve the water quality of the Toms river, not pollute it, and that effluent released to the Toms River would be clear and pure and in no way contaminate the stream or harbor. If only that was true.

Another sad element in the story was the lack of oversight by the State and local officials. Instead, the Company was welcomed to the community and provided with favored treatment because of the expected economic benefit to the community. When the plant opened, the N.J. Governor stated that Ciba was taking a risk in opening the factory, and thus should be entitled to reap the rewards without excessive taxation or government interference. However, without effective government oversight and collection of taxes, tons of chemical waste were dumped, leading to high cancer rate in the area, and little or no municipal money available to clean it all up.

Mr. Fagin’s writing was basically non-political, focusing on the illnesses caused by chemical company wastes and the people involved and impacted, however there were a few gentle gibes at local Republican officials, specifically over being anti-regulation involving these companies, and insisting on keeping taxes low for these polluters, meaning cleanup and treatment costs weren't adequately funded.

I thought it interesting that the author never tried to make a point that the chemical company carelessly dumped their waste products knowing or even suspecting it would harm the community. Likewise, neither local, State nor company officials ever suspected that the plant discharges would lead to poisoning the water supply and lead to excessive cancer rates in the area. Things were much different in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.

I think the book provides a good lesson for today, showing that water contamination can occur in unusual ways, and protections need to be made part of our city planning decisions and industrial permitting processes.
( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
nonfiction (science, industry, history, politics - dirty stuff).
( )
  reader1009 | Jul 3, 2021 |
Research and Stories Combine to Tell a Tragic Story

"Toms River" details an appalling, decades-long horror story of business and government gone wrong. The town, Toms River, New Jersey, is home to a Swiss chemical firm's manufacturing and testing facility. The firm, Ciba-Geigy, is an out-of-control polluter that is enabled by uncaring government watchdogs and greedy politicians.

Within the book are several themes: 1) an impeccably researched history of Toms River with contemporary and current interviews, 2) a history of environmental management in industry, and 3) a history of cancer and the research involved in the disease. Each chapter mixes several of these themes, creating a very coherent narrative that concentrates on the New Jersey town in the second half of the 1900s.

As part of the history of the town, Fagin has found heartbreaking stories about various forms of rare cancer that have been prevalent there. The stories are moving in their tragedy. I've never considered myself much of an environmentalist, but after reading "Toms River," it's clear why people need environmental protections. The lesson is obvious: when governments allow polluters to run amok, real people will suffer the consequences.

The research is excellent. Fagin includes plenty of sources along with copious footnotes, which are not necessary to the understanding of the book, but provide detailed information for anyone looking for more. Fagin has done current interviews with many of the key figures involved in the Toms River debacle, including housewives, midnight chemical dumpers, plant managers, Greenpeace activists, union members, nurses, politicians, and cancer survivors. In addition, he reaches centuries back in order to tell the reader about the progress, or lack-thereof, in industry and medicine.

The only knock against this book is more of a knock against myself. I am not particularly interested in some of the science behind chemical pollution. Fagin does not dwell on it too much, but it was enough to make the book a little less quick than what I am used to.

This book is well worth a read for anyone interested in environmental science, cancer, town histories, and the relationship between industry and politics. ( )
  mvblair | Aug 9, 2020 |
The author has taken a complicated tangle of details and turned it into a readable, compelling story of a town's unwitting complicity in polluting its own water table. The early parts of the book are full of town history and memorable characters. The middle chapters read like a thriller, keeping us wondering if the truth will come out and the bad guys get punished. The last quarter of the book tries to explain the challenges of epidemiology studies based on smaller populations. This sad story also foretells the potential disasters that will inevitably rock China, where much of the chemical industry moved following the Tom's River fiasco. ( )
  LaurelPoe | Dec 25, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 33 (next | show all)
"..surely a new classic of science reporting"
 
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Every Tree / carries the snow with its own grace / bends to the breeze with its own sway / etches the clouds with its own stroke / bows to the ice with its own resolve / rights its trunk clenched by its own roots / drenches itself in its own desire / and creates its own spring. -Lois Levin Roisman
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On the rare occasions when Michael Gallick needed to know what day it was, he could check his pillbox. -Prologue, Marking Time
Who Tom was, if he ever was, is the first unsolved mystery of Toms River. -Chapter One, Pirates
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History. Science. Sociology. Nonfiction. HTML:WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • Winner of The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award • “A new classic of science reporting.”—The New York Times

The riveting true story 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.

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND KIRKUS REVIEWS

“A thrilling journey full of twists and turns, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin 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 complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller.”—NPR

“Unstoppable reading.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Meticulously researched and compellingly recounted . . . It’s every bit as important—and as well-written—as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—The Star-Ledger
 
“Fascinating . . . a gripping environmental thriller.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“An honest, thoroughly researched, intelligently written...

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