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Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation

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For the readers of A Civil Action, The Emperor of all Maladies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a ripping scientific detective story, deep historical research and an unforgettable cast of characters into a riveting narrative that will leave readers asking, could it happen in my town, too?

On a cool September day in 1971, an independent trucker with a history of legal scrapes flung open the double doors of his eighteen-wheeler and began tossing leaky drums of industrial waste onto the sandy soil of a rundown chicken farm in Toms River, New Jersey. Eight years later, a schoolteacher who lived four miles away gave birth to a boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast growing tumors that soon riddled his face and chest. The doctors predicted he would not reach his first birthday. They were wrong, but that was only one of many surprises that would eventually come to light in Toms River, culminating in 2001 with a record legal settlement believed to top $35 million and an unprecedented government study confirming the existence of a long-suspected cluster of childhood cancer linked to polluted water and air.

A detective story rooted in a scientific quest thousands of years old, 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 would not keep silent.

560 pages, Hardcover

First published March 19, 2013

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About the author

Dan Fagin

2 books62 followers
A science journalism professor at New York University, Dan Fagin is a nationally prominent journalist on environmental health topics. His new book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, was awarded the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. It has been described as “a new classic of science reporting” (The New York Times), “a gripping environmental thriller” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review), “a crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance” (Publishers Weekly), “required environmental reading” (The Philadelphia Inquirer), and "an absorbing and thoughtful navigation of our era of synthetic chemicals" (USA Today).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 570 reviews
Profile Image for Eileen.
119 reviews25 followers
April 10, 2013
I have lived in Toms River twice – first while in high school, from 1984-1989, and it is my current residence since 2000. When my family originally moved to New Jersey in 1984, we lived not too far from where the first break in the Ciba-Giegy pipeline occurred. The story Fagin tells is the background story of my high school and college years. Many of the players he mentioned are real people to me - Bill McVeigh was my history teacher in high school and the ex-navy seal who owned a dive shop in town whose advice was sought after by the Greenpeace disrupters was the father of one of my brother's closest high school buddies. While doing some student teaching in a Toms River elementary school located in the core zone, there was a young girl in that class 6th grade class with leukemia – we knew people in town who had young kids with cancer. The book doesn't say, but Bill McVeigh, the Toms River High School East history teacher who lived on Cardinal Drive (which backed up to Ciba-Giegy’s property) also died prematurely from cancer a few years ago, at far too young an age.
As a resident of this town, Fagin’s book rings resoundingly and disturbingly true to me and my memory of the events as they unfolded. Small town politics mixed with corporate greed and people who knew if they lost that job at Ciba that there wasn't much else in town with a comparable earning potential made for a perfect storm – just the right combination for good people to look the other way or stop asking hard questions. Ciba was the big bad wolf, but more disturbing to me, actually, was the Riech Farm site, which I don't recall getting the same press and which caused far more pollution and contamination for a considerably longer period of time, with absolutely no regulation. That Furnicola never paid a dime of the $40/day he told the Reich’s he’d pay them to allow him to store the waste drums on their property is par for the sad and disturbing course of the story. Definitely not the kind of thing one wants the hometown to be famous for.
That research is so cumbersome and so expensive to conduct on cluster cancers (and I suspect a potential link to an area Austism cluster as well), is beyond frustrating to me as a community member. The truth is out there, and it’s always complex. Always. Too expensive or too cumbersome is a b.s. excuse to keep turning a blind eye, and not looking at the NUMEROUS locations where similar events have occurred, because, it’s just too hard and too expensive to prove, and the corporations have way deeper pockets to obfuscate than the general public does.
I would recommend this to anyone who lives in Toms River, or in an area where you suspect disease due to industrial waste teratogens. Fagin’s research is excellent and his attention to detail was well appreciated by me. He discusses complex medical and statistical issues, but does so in a way that makes them understandable and relatable. The story of how the offending chemicals were discussed, how their production evolved, and why they were so in demand, along with the historical exploration of how we’ve come to our current understanding of how cancer occurs, were also very well done.
Profile Image for Meredith.
59 reviews8 followers
December 20, 2014
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 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. It will be released in mid-March, and I predict a swift rise to the best sellers lists.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
1,037 reviews26 followers
February 23, 2013
Having grown up in the Toms River area, I was a child when a lot of the whisperings of "cancer cluster" were first heard. So, I was extremely curious to find out more. Fagin does an excellent job of explaining how events unfolded and his particular writing style which included other illustrative historical accountings is effective in helping the layman understand the scientific process. It's hard not to read something like this and become depressed and scared. After all, I still have family who live there and the final update, which is too short in my opinion, does not give me hope that enough has changed. My only reason for not giving the book 5 stars is that the sections detailing the statistical analyses of all of the testing are long and still nearly indecipherable to me (math was never my strong suit). Anyone from Toms River, anyone with an interest in environmentalism, and anyone who just wants to be educated enough to keep their own neighborhoods free from this type of disastrous pollution would do well to read this book.
Profile Image for Dianne.
6,773 reviews574 followers
March 4, 2013
I wrote my review, reflecting my intense response to this book. I managed to lose it. condensed version:

Dan Fagin has put together a history of the horrors and inhumanity of corporate greed and government lack of involvement. His work is backed up by pages and pages of references at the end, all of which point to the causes of the devastation of the families and the lethal pollution of the area in and around Toms River, New Jersey. His work is painfully eye-opening and should be included as an educational tool in schools.

The author started at the very beginning, the 'creation' of a process using certain chemicals to make dye. He follows and documents the trail of a large corporation as they use deceit to hide the environmental havoc they caused. The government always seemed to be one step behind, or not interested/informed, enlightened enough to get involved.

Was this book well-written? Definitely. Did this book affect me? Definitely. Did it open my eyes? Definitely. Should it be read by all? Definitely. I'm not sure I agree with the title: "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" The word 'salvation' just doesn't sit right with me. No amount of monetary compensation to those whose lives were decimated by various cancers can alleviate the guilt of those responsible. It will not bring back those whose lives were cut short nor ease the pain of those who still live. The affects of the acts of these corporations are much more far reaching than just Toms River and people need to be aware and get involved.

This ARC edition was provided by NetGalley and St. Martin's Press in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Tom.
370 reviews
April 3, 2013

A friend who teaches philosophy has a course in business ethics. I thought this was an oxymoron until he explained that business ethics have a set of values to which corporations attempt to adhere. Those values are simply put, to maximize returns to investors. Within such a framework when decisions need to be made the choice that maximizes profits will be taken. Because corporations have the same rights as people, some have compared their behavior to psychopathic personalities…void of compassion. . In many scenarios, the benefits accrue to the few and the risks are borne by the many. Hence, the need for some regulations to ensure that the pursuit of corporate profits doesn’t harm others. Regulatory organizations, for their part, may a) overshoot and become an impediment to innovation and productivity, b) under regulate and allow harm to occur. In the events described in this book, corporations behave pretty much as they always do and the regulators failed in their role.
Tom’s River describes a community in New Jersey that was a sleepy place until a major chemical manufacturer moved operations from Ohio, where the by products of dye manufacturing created pollution, to set up a new, and bigger factory on the banks of a slow moving river. This brought jobs and prosperity to the area, but also polluted the river and the water table from which the community drew its water supply. Subsequent increases in childhood cancers…cancer clusters, aroused stiff opposition to the corporation. Local and state health authorities chose to minimize the risks. There occurred a split in the community between those who worked at the factory, homeowners who had seen a rise in their property values and those families that were convinced that pollution had caused cancers in their children. Enter politicians who wanted whatever publicity they could get from the situation and you can begin to understand how fractious it became.
Clear descriptions of the history of chemical engineering, dye manufacturing, the beginnings of epidemiology and cluster analysis, public health all interwoven with the story of this community makes this an outstanding book. It certainly deserves to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Profile Image for Lisa B..
1,296 reviews6 followers
March 24, 2013
Who knew a book about toxic waste dumping could be such a fascinating read?

By the first 50 pages, I had lost count of the number of times I said “holy crap!”. It was hard for me to wrap my brain around the massive quantity of dumping that was going on. I know this was in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the EPA was in it’s infancy and OSHA was non existent, but even so, I found it appalling. The company responsible already had troubles for dumping in one other U.S city and in Europe, so why should things have been any different in Toms River? To me, this is the standard story of a large corporation coming into a small town and hoping that their offerings of good paying jobs would mean the locals would want to overlook any hazards that might be associated with those jobs. As was often the case, the workers and residents were often kept in the dark about their exposure to toxic chemicals and eventually had to fight tooth and nail for information.

What was so interesting about this book was how the author presented the information. Intermixed with the story of Toms River, he educates the reader on topics such as epidemiology, cancer research, cluster studies and so much more. I can’t even images how much time and effort went into writing this. And while it could have been overwhelmingly scientific, I have to say I felt the informations was presented in a very readable and understandable manner.

My thanks to Random House/Bantam and Netgalley for allowing me to read this in exchange for an unbiased review.
Profile Image for Mike.
52 reviews10 followers
November 12, 2013
Toms River is essential reading for those who care about health, the environment, and the frustration and rights of those injured by industrial hubris. As a professor of Environmental History I would consider this a book that is essential reading.

Like Love Canal and other incidents around the world - Bhopal for instance which was caused by the same industry and same business, we find the rights of the individual trampled in the rush for jobs and economic salvation.

Of course short term gains in economic growth and jobs is often offset by long term loss - in this case destruction of ground water, cancer in the citizens who are caught unawares because state agencies that are supposed to monitor health and environmental issues are appointed by politicians who are beholding to the donations and lobbyists of industry.

Like Erin Brockovich and Lois Gibbs, we can now add the persistent Linda Gillick the pantheon of environmental heroes who stood up to ridicule, the callous who think that cancer is their problem, chambers of commerce, and corporation lawyers to fight for a cause that is more important than all the "good" the company does.

In the end, politics and agencies fail us and we continue with issues like global warming and severe storms, big issues that we as individuals cannot control, but have to endure, not getting the will of the public and the investment needed.

Companies like Ciba-Geigy who created the chemical plant and problems in Toms River change their names to Novartis and move to other places like India and China where regulations are lax and the story does not go away, it just shifts location.

Employees fear for jobs and income - a serious concern - and fight for the company only to find that the company will not fight for them when their own health concerns arise.

The author did amazing research and documentation. He keeps himself and his opinions out of the text and lets the story and complexities play out in a fascinating account that is spell binding and as intriguing as any fictional thriller.

But of course, unlike the fictional thriller, there is not final resolution that will be satisfying, no kick butt public humiliation of the executives - just the reality that we each have a responsibility to act, to support those who are working for the right causes, and to be aware that there are complex issues which take time and some good researchers and lawyers to help us solve.

A highly readable and excellent book.
Profile Image for Erica Deb.
Author 2 books8 followers
June 25, 2013
This book was really good but there was so much information! It was well written and I was excited to learn the history of chemical manufacturing and cancer research, but it is nearly 500 pages and it started feeling like I was at a party trapped in a really long conversation. I'm glad I read it and am shocked by what happened in my hometown, but honestly, it was a struggle to reach the end.
Profile Image for Alison.
189 reviews
April 19, 2013
I wanted to much to like this book and give it a higher review. After all, I grew up 30 miles south of Toms River, so the events took place in my area of reference. I am also very into clean air and water and get almost personally offended when I read about how callously we've treated the Earth and one another in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

I wanted to like this book, but I just couldn't.

Dan Fagin certainly tried his best to tell the story as objectively and honestly as possible, but the ending and overall resolution just felt like such a let-down after investing so much time and effort into the narrative. I understand that as a non-fiction book, the facts are the facts and that's it, but at times Toms River: A Small Town, a Cancer Cluster, and the Epic Quest to Expose Pollution's Hidden Consequences got so bogged down in minutiae and obscure facts/chemicals/history that it made it hard to focus on the story at hand. Science and math are also not strong suits of mine, so I struggled with fully understanding the hard-core statistics and also chemical compositions that Fagin spent so much time writing about. I don't want to feel dumb when I read a book, especially since I am far from dumb.

I went back and forth about the rating of this book. If Goodreads would allow me to give half stars, I would have given it 2.5. I think Fagin truly did try to make the book engaging and emotional as possible, but it just didn't work for this reader. 2 stars.
Profile Image for Christine Boyer.
318 reviews33 followers
March 27, 2020
Pulitzer Prize Nonfiction - 2014. I'm starting to think that the Pulitzer committee gets it "right" more often with nonfiction than its fiction picks! This was a truly incredible book.

Fagin's first line at the end of the book in acknowledgments: "Nonfiction writing is a community endeavor camouflaged as a solitary one." This is true, but I believe Mr. Fagin is being way too modest. This was 466 pages of the most detailed, thought-out, organized, compilation of so many facts, figures, and human interest stories - no wonder it took him 7 years to finish!

Who should read this book? Probably everybody. The only reason I gave 4 rather than 5 stars is just because all of the statistical and molecular science facts started to make it a tough read somewhere around the middle and toward parts of the end. HOWEVER, please do not let that deter you.

Two of many important takeaways: First correlation vs. causation. I think laymen, like myself, are so quick to say, "bad chemical companies, of course you caused the cancer!" I kept feeling like I was having an Erin Brockovich or Norma Rae moment. But I appreciated Mr. Fagin's scientific approach throughout the whole story. It never came across that he was pushing one side's agenda over the other. And he so clearly laid out all of the steps that have to be accomplished to explain why some people get cancer because of exposure to carcinogens, and why unfortunately, some people just get it because of bad luck.

The second item that stood out for me was Fagin's approach to honoring or mentioning all of those who came before. As a history buff, I loved that he set the story this way. I read other reviewers who said they did not like this, that they just wanted to hear what happened in Toms River, New Jersey. To me, Fagin's inclusion of all the great mathematicians, scientists, doctors, researchers who came before was so important to the whole book. He mentioned scores of folks like Paracelsus, the alchemist who in the 16th century was the first to connect minerals with drinking water to John Snow, who in 1854 was a pioneer of epidemiology, and understanding the idea of mapping an area to find out how disease was spread (and figured out cholera, in case you don't know the story).

Fagin also tells the history of Toms River itself, starting with 17th century colonists. He also includes all the background on the chemical companies and their beginnings in Germany and Switzerland and the early years of coming over to build plants in what Americans now think of as our old industrial cities like Cincinnati.

As I said, it may be too detailed for some readers, but the story was and still is so compelling, it's worth it. And I guarantee you you'll never look at a glass of water the same.
Profile Image for Jeanette.
3,398 reviews584 followers
May 16, 2016
This is length and depth. The message is important. But the means of telling this long and murky report is like a stream that has to traverse all 5 continents. And the North Pole.

Because this wasn't just a detailing for the dye works in Toms River, but a history of testing, the chemical components or derivatives, all the legacy/background for the scientific methods for epidemiology (not only for bacterial, but for all kinds of mutative or parasitic health issues in populations as well).

You are not only getting the story of a pollution into ground water, wells and stats for a cancer cluster - but also centuries of back story to the cause/effect knowledge along the way.

Dan Fagin does a great job on the research, the voices, the testimonies for dire and horrific health outcomes. And for the legal aspects and popular attentions and ignoring that cycled in waves for 30 years from the time that the Toms River Dye factory opened until it closed.

The parts on the waste disposal to the Reich's Farm and the methods of barreling and trucking out into dumps were also thorough.

So why not more than 3 stars? Because it covered so much and for so long that the format and flow became nearly loss. I could absolutely "put it down". The last quarter was a slog- put I plodded on. Tracts of chemical analyzing data describing compound changes in the factory processed. And page after page of by product color quality or benzidine contact result to the bladder cancers- that kind of material for this length of copy is quite difficult to read.

It was interesting and seemed 5 star accurate. I just wish I could have grasped the entire more than I did. Because I actually do understand some of the chemistry. But this was like studying the entire history of France to learn about beret manufacturing or champagne production.
Profile Image for Kirsti.
2,567 reviews102 followers
September 9, 2016
I was planning to read this anyway, and then it won a Pulitzer.

I'm always dubious when a book blurb says that a particular nonfiction work is paced like a novel. But this one is. I got to the end of a chapter, and the last sentence was something like, "It seemed like a good place to put a series of wells to fulfill the town's ever-increasing need for drinking water. It was well away from the chemical plant and the polluted river. The only things nearby were a few egg farms." And I thought NO STAY AWAY FROM THE EGG FARMS PEOPLE WILL DIE.

It astonishes me that three selfish, stupid people could singlehandedly create a Superfund site--the 105th-worst toxic dump in the country, according to the federal government. The actual chemical plant that had been in business for decades and that employed thousands of people ranked 113th on that same list.

People's comments during the crisis never ceased to amaze me. Secretaries at the plant tell their bosses that walking through the dye rooms causes their stockings to melt, and the response is, "Where do you think you work, an ice-cream factory? Be grateful you have a job." And the anonymous note in the activist's mailbox . . . oy. And a group of Toms River kids wins the Little League World Series, and the parents say things like, "Where do they get the talent? It must be something in the water."

Interesting parallels between this and the poisonings in Woburn, Mass.

I liked that he finished the book by going to China and discussing the threats there. These problems are going to come up again.

I'd never heard of molecular epidemiology. Studies of neighborhood cancer clusters are nearly always inconclusive, so instead of studying huge groups of people, some scientists are examining the cells of affected and potentially affected people.

February 3, 2014
It's rare that you can find a non-fiction book that's 560 pages long and find it so compelling that you can't put it down. I previously had little interest or involvement in environmentalism, but this book put me on the road to awareness.
It tells of the chemical companies and other industries in Toms River, New Jersey, USA that purportedly polluted the river, ocean and air that the residents drank, swam in and breathed. The author follows histories of some of the residents who suffered and grew ill as a result of these companies being in Toms River, but he gives the information in such a readable and compelling way that this book can easily be read by a layman, or someone who likes a really good story.
Of course the whole theme and consequences of the situation that occurred is sad and makes the reader angry, but it's something that I can highly recommend as an educational book that not heavy reading at all (despite its 560 pages!) We should all be aware of the fragility our planet, and this book gives the reader a good shake and makes them aware of how easily anyone might suffer because of a possible paid-off bureaucrat or a company that was run without concern for the future of the human race.
Profile Image for Sarah.
864 reviews35 followers
October 27, 2018
Dense, horrifying, and very thought-provoking. Fagin interweaves the history of dye manufacturing and its subsequent industrial waste problem, the birth of epidemiology, and the unfortunate intersection of these fields with Toms River, NJ as he charts the course of sickness and cancer among town residents. Due to the lackadaisical approach taken by both Ciba-Geigy and Union Carbide with regards to their industrial waste disposal, Toms River is bombarded by toxic chemicals that endanger its residents -- all so that the companies can save a few bucks and put off investing in proper treatment of waste materials.

It is both infuriating and amazing to read, because Fagin pulls off quite the feat in balancing various pieces to tell this story. Having done meticulous research, he seeks to explain why Toms River's children were more at risk for certain types of cancer and the results (or lack thereof) of cancer cluster studies done on the town. At times bogged down by very small details, Toms River is nevertheless an important book that opens the reader's eyes to the grave environmental atrocities committed in the name of profit. And it's also a devastating portrait of a short-sighted society that sacrifices its own well-being for short-term gain.
Profile Image for Donna.
391 reviews49 followers
October 25, 2020
Very powerful book about years of chemical waste causing water and air pollution in Toms River, NJ, and the local residents who were digiligent about demanding answers.

The author did a great job of pulling in what had been done historically in cancer research to influence what happened here.

Not always an easy read, but a shocking and sobering story,
Profile Image for Michael Huang.
845 reviews38 followers
September 21, 2018
The story brings you back to the 1950s and 60s when the environment is at most an afterthought to the industry and perhaps even to the common people. The dye factory would just dump tons and tons of highly toxic volatile organic compounds in the river or in steel barrels in their or someone else's backyard. In the small town of Toms River, kids born with cancer are just too many to chalk up as bad luck it seems. The book tells the tragic stories of the sick; the progress of the sciences such as epidemiology; and the legal negotiations between the polluting industry and the afflicted families. It can be astonishing to the current generation about what happens only half a century ago...
Profile Image for Porter Broyles.
430 reviews44 followers
May 27, 2020
The book started off a little slow. It was pretty much the same story as A Civil Action or the Rainmaker--but then it really took off.

When Dan started going into the science and challenges in proving the causes of cancer in Toms River the story became fascinating. As a person who deals with statistics and analytics, determining if an abberation is legit or a natural variation can be a major challenge---especially when multiple causes and variables are introduced.

That is where this book shined, it made those challenges digestable and understandable.
Profile Image for nicole.
1,954 reviews75 followers
April 21, 2013
Fagin lays out a clear case of the corporate and government decisions that led Toms River to develop a suspected childhood cancer cluster. While I was not a fan of the pacing, the way in which the story kept moving back in time to discuss different topics such as dying methods, diagnosis methodology, and the like, I could not help getting caught up in his research. I grew up in New Jersey during the time period in which this could-be-but-not-quite childhood cancer cluster occurred and that makes this story so much harder to process.

His findings are upsetting, troubling, and very well told. It is disgusting to see how decades of corporate greed and poor ecological decisions are covered up again and again in the town after town. I am aghast at the way in which the local, state, and national authorities let the people of this region down and yet refuse to acknowledge the connection between the rise of these specific illness and decades of inaction. I am flabbergasted at how the company is allowed to change its name to protect its image and move on from city to city, now country to country, never changing its practices so long as there is another place that won't regulate them properly.

It amazes me how the decisions made by the parties discussed in this book seem to go against the grain of common sense and basic decency. To contract with a farm, never actually pay them the $40 promised in exchange for permission to dump waste that will contaminate their land and render it useless forever, that contains toxins no one was testing for because they did not know they existed, toxins that will eventually taint the water pregnant women drink and cause cancer in their children that no scientist will ever be safely able to correlate, except for girls between a certain set of age and with a certain sort of cancer, which doesn't include children who actually had that cancer because some died of a different cause because of a terminology issue. That the water company people relied on after their wells were deemed too contaminated to be used was actually aware hey were provided water laced with a different toxin, which they thought they fixed by choosing a cost effective treatment that was known to be less effective than the method of treating the water they didn't want to pay for.

And that at the end of the day, after fines, legal fees, and regulation changes, no one was really held accountable for their actions. Most government agencies will not continue costly research into cancer clusters, as the evidence that is found is never certain enough to say what a cause was one way or another, especially at a time when budgets are being sliced to the bones and there are other, more essential areas for taxpayer funds. That there are families in China who are now experiencing what those families in Toms River did, the agony of your child's illness, the medical costs that rack up, the craziness you must feel as the company that is directly causing this tells you they had nothing to do with it.

Hard to read, emotionally and mentally, but worth it none the less.
Profile Image for Emily.
39 reviews18 followers
May 16, 2017
First and foremost, I loved the way this book was written and the way it just delves right into the history of the town in which this story takes place. I appreciate the way Fagin gives you all of the surrounding facts you could possibly want or need throughout the book - about every aspect of this story. I wouldn't say that every book needs this or that I would want this with any book - but the writing is superb and keeps you reading.

As the book progresses, I was finding myself just getting angrier and more appalled with each page I read. You obviously hear about these types of things happening, but having it explained in such excruciating detail was hard.

I found the parts of the book that go into the history of cancer research especially fascinating. My mother is a childhood leukemia survivor, and being diagnosed in the 70s, was one of the lucky ones. The progression in how this disease was classified and understood has always been interesting to me, so I liked that that was focused on so specifically throughout the book.

This book for me

When getting into the

Overall, learning about When I picked this book up at the store, I was shocked at how huge and daunting of a read it seems to be. I'm not sure what is preventing me from giving it that 5th star - it was truly a great book. But I would absolutely encourage anyone to read this. It is a very detailed example of one town's environmental and medical issues, but I think it speaks volumes to how we all currently treat our environment, and how we should.
Profile Image for Helga Cohen.
606 reviews
October 9, 2017
This Pulitzer Prize winning book of 2014 was extremely hard hitting. It dealt with the pollution from well -known chemical companies and how their pollutants caused cancer. Leukemia and neuroblastoma especially in children which was caused by industrial waste teratogens.
Fagin discusses the history of Toms River, the plant, its employees, its citizens and the history of industrial waste disposal, environmental safeguards and the history of epidemiology, cancer and cancer research and treatments. This is the basis of what happened at Toms River.
It involved the companies Ciba-Geigy now owned by Dow Chemical and nearby Union Carbide now also owned by Dow Chemical and their corporate greed and small town politics. Even though pollution went on for decades, for many years little was done about it. The people who worked at the Toms River Chemical Plant and the Toms Water Plant needed their jobs. The government didn’t want to spend the money to do what needed to be done until they were forced to and there were no regulations at the time. It started when a major dye manufacturer moved into the Toms River Community and the by-products of the dye manufacturing created pollution and polluted the river and the water table from which the community drew its water supply. And then after some opposition, they built pipelines to the ocean for their waste. Childhood cancers and cancer clusters were found in the area and stiff opposition to the corporations arose. This eventually led to major investigations, lawsuits and the companies closing after the sites became Super Fund sites which are still undergoing some cleanup. The manufacturing of dyes and other products has been moved to China where the author made a visit and found that China is now seeing an upsurge of cancer clusters and massive pollution. And to those who want jobs returned back to this country, we don’t want those kinds of jobs and the harm they cause to individuals and the environment.
This book deserved the Pulitzer Prize and I recommend it anyone who wants to understand how epidemiology arose and how cancer was caused by industrial waste.
Profile Image for Siobhan.
86 reviews60 followers
February 25, 2014
Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s, I always knew that something had gone on in Toms River: a lot of kids had cancer; that when I visited family members in the surrounding shore towns, we would only drink bottled water; and years later in college, I made friends with individuals who had grown up in Toms River who had believed that they had suffered ill effects from events that had occurred (whether they did or not, I don't know). While I had known the gist of what had happened (chemical plant, nuclear plant, water pollution), I hadn’t known any of the details. Thankfully, now I do.

To the best of my memory, I have never not been able to put a work of nonfiction down during bedtime reading, until this title. The 400+ pages of text are full of pertinent (though occasionally seemingly tangential -- it’s not) information about the history of epidemiology, and dye and industrial chemical manufacturing. This history is mixed with a well-written and suspenseful narrative following the lives of Toms River residents affected by childhood cancers, employees of the chemical company, involvement from Greenpeace, and the employees of government agencies who, if not for a string of fortuitous events, might never have conducted any investigations. It’s well-researched (the footnotes sent me on more than one late-night citation-chasing binge), well-written, and for residents of New Jersey (or anyone living in proximity to an industrial waste or superfund site, or familiarity with environmental public health), it leaves a disappointing conclusion that is all too likely to occur again if we do not all work hard to prevent it. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Emily Kestrel.
1,110 reviews64 followers
August 12, 2017
A book about "corporate avarice and government neglect"--doesn't that sound familiar? The city of Toms River, New Jersey, suffered decades of pollution from toxic waste both from a large chemical company and an illegal dumpsite. This book chronicles the long struggle as many members of the community noticed a large number of children with cancer and tried to get the government to investigate and clean up the problem. In addition, there is a lot of fascinating background information about coal tar processing, the history of epidemiology and occupational medicine, the limitations of statistics in investigating environmental illnesses, etc. I was riveted from the first page until the end, and it would recommend it to everyone. Even if you're not interested in environmental issues and medical investigations, sadly this story is relevant to far more places than one corner of New Jersey. One of the best books I've read this year.
Profile Image for Chris.
8 reviews1 follower
August 5, 2013
When victims of the same rare cancer live in the same neighborhood, it’s tantalizing to think an environmental villain is at play. But it’s almost fantasy to believe one will be found, let alone convicted.

That’s one of the many lessons from the childhood cancer cluster that haunted the New Jersey town of Toms River, the subject of a new book by journalist Dan Fagin.

Despite enormous costs and efforts, health investigators have never determined the cause in any of the hundreds of residential cancer clusters examined in the United States since 1960. They haven’t even identified likely culprits, but for two highly publicized exceptions. The Toms River cluster is one of them.

At least 69 children in the seaside community developed leukemia or brain tumors in the late 1970s through 1990s. Some died. Health investigators, egged on by parent activists, eventually determined that most of the victims lived in the parts of town that were most exposed to the toxic wastes – via drinking water and polluted air – of two large chemical plants.

In the other exceptional case, investigators linked a 1970s outbreak of childhood leukemia in Woburn, Mass., to industrial contaminants in the city water supply. The liability lawsuit brought by victims’ families against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace inspired the acclaimed book-turned-movie thriller, A Civil Action.

Toms River is not written in a made-for-the-movies way. Rather, it’s a blend of equal parts narrative and context. Rich primers on the history and science of environmental health investigations are woven throughout the story at all the right places, like well-placed streetlamps.

Fagin’s exploration is as enlightening as it gets in the murky world of cancer clusters. It’s also courageous. Few journalists dare to drill deep into suspect clusters for much the same reasons health authorities are loath to investigate them. They are fraught with ambiguity, highly nuanced, extremely time-consuming and always inconclusive.

Fagin explains why, in the cold eyes of science, the perceived "cluster" almost always dissolves into statistical insignificance. But, impressively, he also shows the limits of that science.

To analyze disease patterns, health scientists rely on tumor registries that track cancer diagnoses and deaths statewide. But the method is not scientifically valid at the community level. The population of Toms River – roughly 90,000 in 2000 – is too small for scientists to tell whether a higher-than-expected incidence of like cancers is a fluke or a real “cluster” – one unlikely due to chance – meriting on-site investigation. But that didn’t stop New Jersey officials from telling Toms River residents their cancer rates were not unusual – no worries.

“A clever political solution – and a scientifically illegitimate one,” says Fagin, a veteran investigative reporter who teaches science and environmental reporting at New York University.

Though science-oriented, Fagin’s account sharply illustrates the power of grassroots activism and the importance of the bedrock federal pollution-controls laws enacted in the 1970s.

Activist parents working their social connections drove the cluster investigation more than science and evidence. The drama culminated in 2001 when some of the families of cancer victims won a multimillion-dollar settlement against Ciba-Geigy (formerly Toms River Chemical Co.) and Union Carbide and the local water utility.

For 25 years, the fast-growing chemical manufacturers profited by using the town’s namesake river as a sewer and secretly burying their toxic wastes in the sandy soil – eventually contaminating municipal wells. State pollution enforcers knew, but said and did nothing. The local water utility knew, but took no action and left its customers in the dark.

Ciba-Geigy didn’t build a modern lined landfill or treatment plants until the new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency came to town. The EPA also blew the lid off of the drinking water contaminants.

Toms River is scholarly, but it is not an academic tome. For all the science and government agencies the author navigates, the writing is blessedly fluid, unassuming and unblemished by acronyms. And Fagin’s investigative what-did-they-know-and-when-did-they-know-it approach gives the industrial poisoning of Toms River its due in public outrage and corporate disgrace.

Profile Image for J.S..
Author 1 book54 followers
April 13, 2020
The problem for manufacturing companies, and especially chemical manufacturers, is what to do with the waste products. Disposing of it safely can get expensive and eat into profits, so historically companies just dumped it in a river and it was on its way to the ocean - or at least it wasn't their problem anymore. Of course, a river can only take so much before people start to notice... and complain!

Toms River was a pretty little place near the Jersey shore when Ciba-Geigy relocated their manufacturing there in 1949. They were moving operations from Cincinnati (and the Ohio River) where they'd been making fabric dyes from petroleum and tar products for years. Before that they'd made their products in Basel, Switzerland, along the banks of the Rhine River. They purchased a large piece of wooded New Jersey property and built their factory in the middle, surrounded by trees that hid it from the outside. But they didn't dump *all* their wastes into the river - that would have drawn complaints. Instead they burned some of it (at night to reduce complaints from the town) and built holding ponds on the property. Unfortunately those ponds weren't lined and the wastes seeped easily into the sandy soil (the level sometimes dropping as much as five feet in a day) and into the groundwater that provided the growing town's drinking water. But it wasn't just Ciba polluting the town and water. In an effort to keep disposal costs down, Union Carbide paid a contractor to "dispose" of their wastes and it and it ended up being dumped in a pit in a back corner of an old egg farm.

Dan Fagin tells the story of how a cluster of children in Toms River (actually named Dover Township) developed cancer and the medical sleuthing that was able to point the finger at the toxic wastes being generated nearby. And for a fairly lengthy book (460 pages) it's hard to put down. Fagin covers not only Toms River but also the history of how links to cancer were uncovered along the way - and it's a fascinating story. I found his explanations of how cancers happen (there are about 150 different kinds) as well as the history of the chemical industry very interesting, not to mention disturbing - the part about "salvation" in the title is misleading, since there wasn't much of it in the story. The science gets a little technical, but not overly so. And it's plain from the beginning who the bad guys in this story are, but Fagin does a good job explaining why it's so difficult to *prove* blame in such cases even if his telling doesn't always feel very balanced. And as for blame, Fagin makes it pretty clear it wasn't just the chemical companies - plenty of people from politicians to plant workers were perfectly willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on.
Profile Image for Leslie.
522 reviews40 followers
August 23, 2013
I was both fascinated and horrified by this well-researched account of big business putting profit before the health of humans, all living creatures and the environment.

This is a story of corporate greed and government indifference. Government on all levels — state, local and federal — were complicit. It was all business as usual with no thought about the consequences of dumping toxic chemical waste into the water or burying it in ground. Even more disturbing, the local water company knew about the chemicals polluting the drinking water and didn’t do anything about it. They hid the information from the residents so they wouldn’t have to close any of the wells and cause a water shortage.

When an unusually high number of cancer cases began to show up in Toms River, people began to ask questions but found that getting answers was not going to be easy. A few courageous individuals persevered working tirelessly to overcome government and corporate secrecy and uncover the truth.

The author has done extensive research in compiling this story of the people of Toms River and their decades long struggle to end the pollution and bring justice to the many families whose lives were impacted. Merged into their story is also the history of Toms River, a look back at the origin of the chemical dye industry, and the science behind it.

At times I wished I had paid more attention in chemistry class because there is a lot of compelling scientific information in this book; however, not having a complete understanding the chemical reactions will not take away from the story. The science emphasizes the seriousness and the gravity of the situation the people of Toms River were facing and there is a fascinating human interest story in between the big words.

Expertly narrated by Dan Woren, the audio production was a pleasure to listen to. Good pacing and clear pronunciations, even all those scientific terms, made the 18+ hours pass by quickly. Even though this is a detailed and at times complex story, I highly recommend the audio version.

In the end, the families did get some compensation, but not without reservations. Ultimately the corporations moved their factories to China, and the pollution and environmental harm continues. Again, don’t be scared off by the science, this is also a human interest story and one that affects all of us and the planet we live on.
Profile Image for Dianne.
6,773 reviews574 followers
March 4, 2013
I wrote my review, reflecting my intense response to this book. I managed to lose it. condensed version:

Dan Fagin has put together a history of the horrors and inhumanity of corporate greed and government lack of involvement. His work is backed up by pages and pages of references at the end, all of which point to the causes of the devastation of the families and the lethal pollution of the area in and around Toms River, New Jersey. His work is painfully eye-opening and should be included as an educational tool in schools.

The author started at the very beginning, the 'creation' of a process using certain chemicals to make dye. He follows and documents the trail of a large corporation as they use deceit to hide the environmental havoc they caused. The government always seemed to be one step behind, or not interested/informed, enlightened enough to get involved.

Was this book well-written? Definitely. Did this book affect me? Definitely. Did it open my eyes? Definitely. Should it be read by all? Definitely. I'm not sure I agree with the title: "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" The word 'salvation' just doesn't sit right with me. No amount of monetary compensation to those whose lives were decimated by various cancers can alleviate the guilt of those responsible. It will not bring back those whose lives were cut short nor ease the pain of those who still live. The affects of the acts of these corporations are much more far reaching than just Toms River and people need to be aware and get involved.

This ARC edition was provided by NetGalley and St. Martin's Press in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Robin Tierney.
137 reviews3 followers
May 5, 2014
Deep insight on a range of topics: infectious and chronic disease history and research...epidemiology...industrial processes, particularly involving coal tar and its compounds…corporate decision-making re: toxic sludge, waste chemicals, wastewater pitting profits/costs against public/employee safety and (mostly exploited and spoiled environment...community pride and employment concerns (jobs vs. environment)...acute and chronic disease and birth defects/childhood cancers...problems to proving causation vs. merely correlation of medical problems...inability of repeated animal experimentation to produce any applicable-to-human and/or evidence for lawsuits...difficulty of interesting public officials and in this case water company executives in taking action...difficulty of providing compelling evidence when there are multiple chemicals/compounds and multiple sources and a few decades of time passed (also multiple lawsuits). Excellent reporting. Be advised that this is an extremely detailed account, including thick sections about toxicology, forensics and legal maneuvers and roadblocks.
Profile Image for Fredrik deBoer.
Author 3 books581 followers
April 2, 2021
I feel guilt for this because a) Fagin came and spoke to a grad school class of mine and was a very charming and friendly guy and b) because the book's essential virtue as a very in-depth and evenhanded analysis of a maddeningly complex science story is so solid. Environmental pollutants and their impacts on the health of the people near them is of course a matter of tremendous public importance, and Fagin's long considerations of the indeterminacy of correlational data are genuinely useful in a world that's often lacking in clear answers.

But it's just so long, and it grows so boring. I understand that part of the fundamental task here is to leave nothing out, to include everything you can think of in order to make an impossibly multivariate situation as clear as possible. But I still think this book could easily be a quarter shorter and not suffer at all from it. I wish Fagin (or his editors) had taken less of a kitchen sink approach. The strategic application of a razor could take this text from two stars to four. I'm very glad I ready this book but I won't ever want to read it again.
Profile Image for David.
519 reviews41 followers
January 3, 2015
After a very strong start this book got less and less enjoyable to the point where I just wanted to get through it. Most of the last third of the book should have been moved to the footnotes. It was just unnecessary denseness that muddled the story. However, if you’re an environmental chemist this is the book for you.

The early sections of the book combined the best elements of The Ghost Map (Steven Johnson), The Emperor of All Maladies (Siddhartha Mukherjee) and A Civil Action (Jonathan Harr) to provide thorough and interesting background information to set up the Toms River story.

As the story moved on it took on too many elements for the sake of thoroughness but at the detriment of effective narrative.

Overall the author writes very well except for his early habit of excessive foreshadowing and his later habit of overusing the phrase, “In other words,..."
Profile Image for Terragyrl3.
348 reviews5 followers
July 2, 2017
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.
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