on February 24, 2014
For nearly seven years, I worked as a lab technician at the Toms River Chemical Corporation. I remember the initial economic benefit the dye-and-plastics manufacturing plant brought to the community and its philanthropic projects designed to ingratiate it with the population. I remember endorsing the company's effluent pipeline and its alleged efforts to be a good neighbor. That was then. Before the knowledge became public that the plant's Swiss masters were following a time-dishonored tradition: from originally polluting the Rhine River, next to polluting the Ohio River, and finally to polluting the Toms River. Before we knew that waste organics were being secretly dumped onto the sandy soil, where they leached into the groundwater, polluting not only individual wells but the township wells too. Before the onset of the cancer cluster that claimed the lives of many children whose mothers' only sin seemed to be unknowingly drinking tainted water during pregnancy. This book delves deeply into the history of the dye industry and the lessons it brought to Toms River--unfortunately, after the fact. The thorough documentation, in the form of endnotes, often provides sidebars that are fascinating in themselves. This is not a book you'll read in one sitting. The science is detailed and sometimes overwhelms. The anguish of the families is palpable. And the political posturing and deception displayed by the players can stimulate outrage. As well they should.
When I was in high school, my family lived less than 10 miles from the New Jersey title city of this book. In those days, the landscape of that part of Ocean County was not yet populated with the McMansions of New York and Philadelphia commuters. In addition to the stunted pines and pin oaks that mark the Pine Barrens, the area was dominated by the remnants of closed post-WWII poultry farms, some cranberry bogs, gravel pits and horse farms...and not much else. When we roamed the mostly unfenced woodlands between roads often named for mills and creeks, it was not unusual to come across 55-gallon drums whose unknown contents either still oozed or had solidified into unnatural blobs of brightly colored who-knows-what. We gave these a wide berth as we pressed on with the business of being kids. Even though we kidded openly about south Jersey attracting the remains of organized criminals gone wrong, we had little idea what other maliciousness hid behind the many stands of trees and unmarked dirt roads...
In "Toms River", Dan Fagin weaves together the intricate threads of economics, science, politics and personal tragedy in this examination of how both a chemical giant (Ciba-Geigy) and entrepreneurs in industrial waste disposal contaminated the ground water (and to a lesser degree, the air) of a sleepy coastal town. He takes on complex issues to address the history of industrial processes (and the disposal of their by-products), both in Europe and in the United States. He adds narratives on the economics of rural America, the indifference of elected and appointed government officials, the science of environmental medicine, and the dynamics of popular fights against more well financed adversaries when the extent of the human and environmental tolls are realized.
Don't expect a quick read, because the issues are complex and Fagin addresses the science in the detail needed to understand the problems. While I may have grown up in the midst of the events in this book, I had left the area and was living overseas when the popular push back against the perpetrators in this book took place. Until reading "Toms River", I was unaware that Toms River was once a battleground for a very public demonstration by Greenpeace. Fagin describes these events and effectively brings a needed human element into a subject matter that could be easily run over by the scientific and political discussions that accompany it.
Whether you're from New Jersey or not, this book is an outstanding treatment of a tragic American story. Well worth the time!
on March 24, 2013
When I received this book I was not in the mood to read about chemical companies' complete disregard for anything but profits or pollution or cancer. However, it immediately drew me in and I read 134 pages in the first sitting. I've also been compelled to tell everyone I'm in contact with about it.
Fagin's writing and structuring is particularly effective in keeping the book lively and interesting and preventing it from becoming overwhelming. He shifts between the specific history of Toms River, of the plant, its employees, and the citizens, and the history of industrial waste disposal, environmental safeguards, and the history of epidemiology, cancer, cancer treatments and research. The background feeds directly into the issues in Toms River, and each section seemed necessary.
While I find science interesting, it's certainly not my specialist subject, but I didn't feel overwhelmed by the information presented. Fagin writes very clearly, and seems to keep the general audience in mind. For instance, if an acronym hasn't been used for a while he reminds you what it stands for (a move I greatly appreciate). There is a real balance in this book, both in the information reported (epidemiology is rarely completely obvious and solid) and between telling the scientific story and the human story.
I highly recommend this book, and really can't find anything to criticize.
This is a difficult book to categorize. It is certainly a monumental effort to document comprehensively the nuances of the last two or three centuries of the interaction of scientific and technological achievements with human ineptitude and insensitivity. The subtitle, "A Story of Science and Salvation", is catchy but somewhat inept; there is no "salvation" in sight, as far as I am able to discern.
Fagin's effort is NOT an easy read; indeed, I might not have finished it at all had I not had two full days when I was in a situation where I could read intensively without distractions. It is technical enough that I was grateful for my master's degree level training in organic chemistry, but regretted the fact that I do not have the background in biochemistry and genetics, not to mention statistics and epidemiology, that might have made the other parts of the discussion more comprehensible. The historical commentary from Paracelsus on was intriguing, and the technical detail extraordinary, and at the same time, very readable.
Obviously, in the phrase that has become the paramount cliché for our era, "Houston, we have a problem!" Since the birth of synthetic organic chemistry and Perkin's development of aniline dye from coal tar - upon which event, as Fagin explains, this whole narrative hinges - we have had a Jekyll-Hyde situation going on with our chemical technology. Huge benefits and ghastly hazards are two sides of the same coin. Unfortunately, the thing that tips the balance drastically in the direction of the hazards is, as Fagin's book clearly documents, the unavoidable element of human greed and thoughtlessness. As long as there's a profit motive, the benefits of scientific advancement will be far outweighed by the environmental exploitation. It is tragic and ironic that quite possibly the greatest cost - both in terms of sickness and loss of life as well as in tax-payer funded Superfund cleanup - resulted from the careless dumping of waste from a Union Carbide plant on a chicken farm by a private, unlicensed contractor who may have made a few thousand dollars profit, but cost both the company and the public untold millions.
One thing that I found especially fascinating, given my own chemistry background, is the somewhat arbitrary "allowable limits" of various toxic chemicals in air and water. Just to put this in perspective, many such limits are set in ppb (parts per billion), but doing the math, one finds out that in fact given the actual number of molecules in a glass of water, and the number of cells in the human body, one ppb of a toxic substance would actually mean that there would be at least one molecule of that substance available to interact with every single cell. And the key idea in this narrative is that apparently the greatest risk of carcinogenesis was in fact observed with fetuses in utero, meaning when there is rapid cell division and many fewer cells to be impacted. As we continue to learn more and more about genetics as well as the toxicity potential of various chemicals, as Fagin's extraordinary book clearly documents, the somewhat arbitrary assumptions and restrictions of statistical epidemiology are clearly not enough.
on April 28, 2014
Gripping story, pulls you in, educates, and moves you along -- up to about the midway point. The second half is as slow and often downright boring as the first half was otherwise, filling page upon page upon page upon page of this person's studies and that person's studies, and this person's epidemiology and that person's epidemiology, often repetitious and increasinlgy arcane. The second half could have been more meaningfully summarized in 1/4 the pages (and the whole book, then, would have been better if last half was instead the last 1/5.) For those truly wanting to following the numerous, detailed, scientific discussions of the various, competing studies, which fill out the second half, a few footnotes would have sufficed to direct such readers to further information. As it is, I found myself going from riveted to skipping pages to get to the end. Where are the editors of yesteryear?
Motto: Don't try to stretch a good story out beyond it's natural flow.
I must say up front that I spent my summers in Ortley Beach, NJ and eventually got my first teaching job in Toms River, NJ. Because my husband was drafted in 1968, we did not buy a home and raise a family in Toms River, NJ. In reading this book, I realized that I may have "dodged a bullet". Other families were not so fortunate. This book thoroughly and clearly describes the history of the town's toxic waste dumping by Ciba (aka: Ciba Geigy, Novartis) , and the eventual discovery of a "cancer cluster". The author minutely examines the 40 year history of this company's deliberate secretive burying, and eventually direct effluent ocean dumping of hazardous chemical waste products of its dye processing plant.
There are three tiers to this book, each one appealing to a different audience. The first tier, which is the one that appealed to me, is the human story of the families affected when children were diagnosed with brain and nerve cancers. Familiar names (to me) and copious footnotes document the story. The second tier relates the history of epidemeology and how its evolvement helped solve Toms River's mystery. This part is technical, with lots of chemistry supporting details. The third tier focuses on environmental protection, Superfunds, and the role of government in safeguarding citizenry. Each tier has much to offer the reader, but the less technical reader has to be patient as the author weaves in his three tiers.
In conclusion, this book has the potential of being on a "must read" list for any serious environmentalist, local government official, and all manufacturing executives with a conscience.
on April 21, 2013
I grew up in New Jersey in the 1940's and, in those years, before the Garden State Parkway, the stretch of South Jersey "down Barnegat Bay" was rural and remote, populated year round by a handful of farmers and baymen, and in the summer by a few recreational sailors and fishermen.
But that was about to change.The Parkway brought civilization, in the form of real estate development and hordes of summer tourists, and paved the way for industrial development and environmental degradation..
"Toms River" is a very fine book that documents the arrival of a large chemical plant in the small South Jersey town of Toms River. Like many such rural initiatives, the plant was initially welcomed by the locals because it brought badly needed jobs to a depressed economy. But, as the years passed, it became increasingly clear that it also brought chemical pollution of the local river and toxic changes in the Toms River underground water supply.
Toms River documents these events , which occurred and were exposed over several decades, beginning with a slowly evolving awareness of an increased cancer risk in the local population, especially children. It goes on to describe the role of local activists in exposing the problem, and the shortcomings of the local politicians, State of New Jersey and the federal government in correcting it. It also treats such obscure but interesting topics as the epidemiology of cancer clusters and the chemistry of various industrial pollutants.
i can't recommend this book too highly. it is somewhat long but very well written and holds the reader's attention, even when describing technical subjects such as the statistical analysis of cancer clusters.
Toms River could have used a few more maps and tends to get bogged down towards the end; I would fault it for not being specific enough when categorizing childhood leukemia and brain tumors, since there are many forms of each, and not all may be related to industrial pollution.
But these are relatively minor quibbles and shouldn't detract from an otherwise fine and important book. It should be read by anyone interested in protecting our fragile environment, and especially by local politicians interested in attracting industry to their communities.
TOMS RIVER is an interesting book that illuminates BOTH the corporate irresponsibility AND the human activist spirit that looks for answers and solutions. The background, cause, effects and legal ramifications are explored with in-depth, detailed scientific approach with the human narrative woven through. The original damage can never be undone. The remediation and mitigation efforts won't bring back the land and water to the way it was, or give the parents their children back or their good health. Hopefully, this book serves as a cautionary tale that minimizes future occurrences AND get people to determine if they too are living in a similar situation that needs attention.
The Toms River area had been a part of my parents' lives from their early days of marriage, through to the years they took their grandkids "down the shore" during the summer. My sisters and I didn't live there, just spent summers and holidays with family friends that have since moved to the hills of Pennsylvania. My Mom didn't live to see the the research completed, the case litigated or have her concerns put to rest about the blood and bone tumors her kids developed. Through her careful monitoring we got early treatment while they were benign. So many others weren't as lucky as the cancer clusters were developing and finally detected in the area.
I'm glad to have the opportunity to read this book to get an understanding of the pollution history. I approached this book with BOTH wanting to know AND scared to know details of the pollution gift that keeps on giving. It's in-depth detailed, scientific approach might put some people off; yet the narrative hits home whether you're from Jersey or not. Similar situations are in many of our "backyards" around the country and dare I say around the world.
PS I'm sure this review will be expanded as the information settles in; the impact has been overwhelming personally. There are sections I'll probably re-read with less emotion to grasp the facts better.
I found this book to be very interesting, although I also found myself skimming the 50+ pages the author devoted to the history of epidemeology and chemistry to be dull and unnecessary filler. The disappointing ending (and this is of course a true story) and depressing reality is that CIBA-Geigy, Union Carbide, and the local water authority paid out a relatively insignificant amount of money in the civil lawsuit settled by 69 families whose children had developed cancer from the dumping of toxic chemicals into the Toms River. While the amounts paid out were officially a matter of sealed legal record, some of the information was made public due to a quirk in New Jersey state law, which requires legal settlements made on behalf of minor children to be reviewed and approved by a judge. In my lifetime, I've unknowingly supported CIBA with thousands of dollars of my hard-earned money buying contact lenses. I'm only one person, so if you add up the numbers - hundreds of millions of customers around the world who also wear contact lenses manufactured by CIBA, any civil settlement paid out to the families of Toms River was just a footnote in the history of a very prosperous worldwide corporation. So I am left with the impression that there were no lasting lessons taught to those responsible for creating an environmental tragedy that was entirely preventable. What system is in place to stop another company from behaving in a similar manner? Absolutely nothing.
I grew up in north central NJ and my father bought a summer house on the bay in Toms River in the early 1980s so I spent a fair amount of time in the town over weekends for many about ten years before moving to the West Coast in the late 1990s. I don't remember this situation, but when I came across the title on Amazon, I was quite intrigued and wanted to learn more.
"Toms River" is an eminently fair, well-researched and highly engaging read. At times, it is downright maddening to read about the utter disregard for people and the environment the chemical industry has --- having traveled to China, I can attest that the situation may be better here due to things like the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, regulation and better awareness and citizen activism --- but the problem is even more acute in other parts of the world than it was in Toms River from the early 1950s through the 1980s.
Fagin did a painstaking amount of research and is exhaustive in his detail on the pollution in several key locations in the city Initially, we learn of the consequences of the environmental havoc through the story of MIchael Gillick, diagnosed with rare cancer as an infant, who has lived past the grimmest of diagnoses, to keep the heat on the town and the chemical companies with his mother for the sake of all the others afflicted with cancer. Fagin also does a great job of delving into the field of epidemiology and the challenges of proving "cancer clusters" for a variety of reasons.
By the end of the story, it may be impossible to whether the highly polluted water in the town caused the rash of cancers in Toms River (those that were in excess of standard expected rates), but I certainly came away convinced and left frustrated that the only thing likely preventing more cases of clusters caused by man made "disasters" are large enough sample sizes. I certainly wouldn't want to drink water or swim in lakes or rivers with those toxic combinations of chemicals. I'd be surprised if the executives of the companies would either.