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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
Format: Hardcover|Change
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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.
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on July 27, 2016
This book covers a lot of territory, but I found it all quite interesting.

1) I was especially intrigued to read that the whole investigation of what happened in Toms River, NJ is rooted in the observations of a nurse at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who noticed that there seemed to be an abnormally high incidence of children with cancer coming from Toms River, NJ. This led her to alert her sister-in-law who worked for the EPA that something seemed strange, and they went from there, although it took years to come to any solid conclusions. This nurse is to be commended for her perceptiveness and for acting on her suspicions.

2) I also found it interesting how long it took to prove anything. Of course with a stable of attorneys trying to show that you couldn't prove anything, this slowed the process, but when lawsuits are inevitable, this is to be expected. 3) The historical section on environmentally caused health risks in nineteenth century Germany in the Rhine River region was captivating history. I'm glad that was included. 4) The history of chemicals in Toms River and how they impacted the water supply was fascinating. 5) The stories of the people impacted by the chemicals, those who had cancer and their families who supported them, captured the human impact the improper disposal of the chemicals; these stories were told with honesty and dignity. So many suffered that it was heartbreaking to read. (This takes us back to the nurse in point 1, above, who saw something needed to be done.)

All together, this book showed me something of the complexities of the scientific method that needs to be followed and respected in order to prove that the chemical companies and their procedures of disposal of chemical waste could be the cause of the cancers in Toms River. In so many ways, all these things were woven together by author Dan Fagan into an engaging story.
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on January 14, 2017
I'm five chapters in and I've already learned so much. I'm reading this for my Intro to Environmental Health class and it's such a breath of fresh air. This is a great way for anyone to learn about the basics of environmental health, it's history, the policy (or lack thereof) pertaining to it, and the very real, personal consequences of ignoring environmental health hazards. I love that Fagin doesn't limit his writing to the story at hand. He doesn't just write about pollution in Toms River, but also the origins of the dye that the Toms River plant manufactured. He doesn't just write about one man's cancer, but cancer throughout human history. I am excited to share this with all my friends, and to eventually (hopefully) write something this fascinating and important.
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on April 23, 2017
"Tumors cost Michael the full use of his left eye and ear, ruined his balance, and shifted the location of his internal organs. Steroid drugs stunted his growth and bloated his face, while chemotherapy weakened his heart and lungs, destroyed the lining of his stomach, and dissolved his bones to the point that walking was painful."
At three months of age Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, cancer of the nervous system.
Toms River would transition from a small fishing and tourist destination to a major enclave of secret agreements, corporate bribes and cover-ups, monetary issues beyond greed and passion, moribund citizenry ignorance and indifference, where calloused attitudes of local and State officials created a cauldron of social dissonance and ecological disorders. Toms River Chemical Corporation would become the region's economic engine on which employment came to being perceived as a must-have bastion for continued prosperity.
Toms River Chemical Corporation would also become a hazardous waste disposal income generator from accepting 25 truckloads of waste each day into its six open-pit dumps.
Cyanide, dimethyl sulfate, xylene, nitrobenzene, phosgene are just a few of the more than two dozen chemicals and agents manufactured by what would become the world's largest chemical producer.
Toms River is a 500 plus tome of discovery in 24 chapters of corporate chicanery eloquently detailed as lawyers and executives conspire endlessly to defend a culture of bottom-line results above all else. Only one company in New Jersey was allowed to dump industrial waste into the Atlantic where chemicals were found within a half-mile from the closest beach. "One company" was Ciba-Geigy (formerly Toms River Chemical Corporation) the county's largest employer and a powerful political crucible.
At the end of 1988 the Toms River factory produced its last batch of dry chemicals; BASF acquired the final remnants of Ciba's chemical business.
It was a long journey of drama and intrigue that is well presented alongside the connected human frailties by author Fagin. The final message of
this manuscript seems to be that corporate evil with assists from individual power brokers have no limits.
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on June 27, 2014
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.
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on November 25, 2014
Dan Fagin is one of the best science journalists working today. He digs deeply into a story, and zeros in on the key issues, key people, and key narratives. Along with a good read, everyone can learn something from this book. No matter whether you are a layperson concerned about industrial pollution; an activist working on trying to solve a similar case of environmental injustice; a worker in a dangerous industry; a health care provider faced with patients who may be affected by environmental or occupational exposures; a government official drawn into a clash between industry, constituents and environmentalists; or a scientist interested in how the "real world" outside the lab or office works. Everyone interested in how pollution can affect health and how industries, communities, and governments respond to this problem, will learn something from this book.

One issue which Fagin barely touched on has been generally ignored during investigations of cancer clusters for the last 30 years. That is the possibility that some virus or other infectious agent played a role in the clustering of cancers, not just in space, but also in time. From the 1950s to the 1980s, a leading theory of cancer clusters that were limited in duration as well as location, was an infectious disease. Much effort went into seeking a virus that caused childhood leukemia. While some types of cancers have been shown to be caused by viruses and other infectious agents, no specific virus was ever linked to childhood cancer clusters. With widespread concern for carcinogenic chemicals and radiation that arose in the 1970s, the virus theory was largely abandoned. However, just because a specific virus has not been found does not negate the possibility that some of the most dramatic cancer clusters might have an infectious agent as an important risk factor. The Fallon NV cluster is a prime example. The latest scientific investigations of this cluster are starting to point to an infectious agent risk factor. An infectious agent wouldn't have to act alone. It might require chemical or radiation insults as well before a cancer cluster would result. This could explain why true cancer clusters are rare.
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on May 7, 2013
Local Toms River politician making a speech, "We thank CIBA for coming to Toms River investing all their money, bringing to town good jobs, helping us build the community and putting us on the map. They should be allowed to make profits without government interference, high taxes or oversight. This is circa 1952 but does it sound very similar today? Very difficult book to really rate because tied into a very riveting story is a ton of scientific jargon sometimes difficult to understand. There is an old saying if it smells like dog poop, looks like dog poop and tastes like dog poop, guess what. Even though medical science was not able to definitely prove the chemicals dumped caused all the medical problems in Toms River, draw your own conclusions. Even though the Toms River families settled with CIBA and others without a trial, they probably would not have won due to lack of medical evidence, even though the ill children would have made sympathetic witnesses. The end of the book is interesting as the author ties China into the medical mystery and they are undergoing what the US did in the 1950's and 1960's with manufacturing, unregulated waste disposal and then the alleged diseases that come with it. Well researched and written but no salvation at books end. Be grateful if you did not get sick.
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on April 16, 2015
Chemistry is neither good or bad. It just is. And, like every human enterprise, it comes with human faults and qualities. This book achieved the difficult balance of telling the tale of the evolution of many intertwined histories: technology, environmental awareness, corporate benefits to a community, families' suffering, the difficulty to associate cause and effect and finally disappointment. It used the story line focused on Tom River as a backdrop to much bigger issues: economic realities, radicalism in environmentalist and yes, sometimes of greed associated with ignorance. You leave the book with a feeling that you understand better how extreme positions can help as much as methodical legal work. Never a soap box for environmental causes nor for the chemical industry, this book reads as if a skilled moderator was able to get a group of diverse folks in a room and get everybody heard, no matter how loud and obnoxious or quiet and unassuming that person is. A great read.
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on April 8, 2013
I was trained in science (physics) and studied statistics in graduate school for my MBA. And I grew up at the shore in nearby southern Monmouth County. Starting in the 1960s and to the present date I visit Pine Lake Park in Toms River, ever since my best friend began taking me to his parent's summer place there and later as he and his wife settled there near his brother and now their own children and grandchildren live there too -- in the same neighborhood.

This book is wonderfully written with a clear flow and simple cogent explanations in-line or in great footnotes. It is gripping.

It also infuriated me with its descriptions of venal politicians and utterly corrupt criminal business interests. These businesses treat people as a resource to be exploited, whether they are the workers, the pollution victims or customers. We must find a way to make the business managers criminally responsible and unable to offshore to another location to repeat their murderous ways.

It is perhaps needless to say that the corporate lawyers, consultants for hire to industry and the bureaucrats depicted in the book are beneath contempt.

At the end, I can only applaud the herculean efforts of the handful of good people in the book and say that I feel they were not compensated fairly at all. And with the story about to be repeated in China and across the third world (which includes some US southern states), I felt let down by the system.

And I don't see even a hint of the needed changes.
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on July 22, 2014
This is an incredible work--tremendous research, a legal whodunit, and written in a generally easy to understand style. There are a lot of difficult scientific concepts and Fagin does a good job of making them understandable for the general reader but i still had to skip over a bit. He does a good job of bringing some of the main characters to life. Actually I would have appreciated more on many of the human stories but I am sure the editors said, look, there is only so much you can do on that side in a tome like this. Had I gone into journalism, this is the kind of book I would liked to have written. SPOILER ALERT: The ending is more than a bit unsatisfying but that is because the real-life ending was unsatisfying.

CAVIL: This is book of journalism so one expects everything to be accurate. But a look at the credits on the back flap shows THE COVER IS A FAKE. It is a COMPOSITE "photo" combining water from one image (is it really Toms River? who knows?) and a tower from another image. I would have expected better from this excellent book.
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