Environmental Book Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

I’m usually skeptical of pop science journalism, but I decided to give Dan Fagin’s Toms River a go after coming across a grumpy amazon review complaining that it was too scientific.

Toms River is about chemical pollution and its consequences in the coastal New Jersey community of the same name, focusing on a childhood cancer cluster that made big headlines around 2000.  However, this isn’t just the story of evil chemicals that hurt innocent people; Fagin’s narrative, punctuated with historical background on chemical manufacturing, toxicology, epidemiology, and molecular genetics, is organized like a mystery novel but with an unsatisfying, anticlimactic ending.  It’s a true story after all, and the intricacies, flaws, and knowledge gaps in law and science make it almost impossible bring the responsible parties to justice.

In the 1950s, a Swiss dye manufacturer bought a gigantic chunk of undeveloped land in Toms River, NJ, after being forced to leave first Basel and then Cincinnati for river pollution.  The company, known for most of its lifetime as Ciba, set up shop out of sight from the local residents and quickly became the biggest employer in the county.  Ciba brought so much economic progress to the town that local and state officials turned a blind eye to waste management, allowing Ciba to pump its liquid waste into the ocean through an underground pipeline (but not after it had contaminated the tiny local river and a well that supplied the local water company) and “treat” its solid waste by simply dumping it into pits throughout its property.  The chemical waste seeped though the soil into the groundwater below.  With “smokestacks that belched colored smoke only at night,” Ciba contaminated the air, water, and soil of Toms River virtually uninhibited through the 1970s.

Meanwhile, a scheming man looked to make some quick cash by “getting rid of” 55-gallon drums of toxic waste for Union Carbide.  He rented land from a struggling poultry farmer in Toms River to temporarily store empty drums, or so he said, but the hundreds of leaking drums left on Reich Farm were not empty and turned into another source of drinking water contamination.

When an unusually large number of early childhood cancers appeared in Toms River in the 80s and 90s, it was clear to parents that carcinogenic chemicals were the cause.  As Fagin aptly demonstrates, it’s not that simple to prove.

To me, this is the most important part of the book. The people you meet while reading are interesting and certainly full of pathos and the science mystery is thrilling, but the most significant part, the part that everybody should think about, is about how environmental science fits into our society.

Here’s an example: it is notoriously hard to prove that cancer clusters exist.  Very few claims of cancer clusters have ever been investigated because cancer presents a statistical nightmare.  There are hundreds of different kinds of cancers that may be caused by different factors. Looking at a town like Tom’s River, if the average expected number of childhood leukemia is 3 in any given year, and one year we have 5 cases, is that a statistically significant increase, or could it have been caused by chance? Cancer doesn’t happen right away either; even in children cancer appears years after the exposure. In order to establish statistical significance (i.e. that the event would happen by chance less than 5% of the time), we need more than just a handful of cases, or a better way or organize the few cases we have. In terms of the sources of the cancer, toxicology can help through the use of animal studies, but of course the Toms River children were exposed to hundreds of different chemicals, while in a lab we only test them one at a time over a period of many years.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil the book.  You can imagine how data like this can help or hurt a legal case, besides the political and monetary pull that big corporations have.  The EPA didn’t even exist until 1970, and it is questionable whether Ciba knew that its waste was toxic or that its own workers were getting bladder cancer in astronomical numbers. (How could they not?)

Toms River raises many important questions about environmental contamination and remediation today.  How many cancer or other disease clusters are out there that haven’t been investigated because of statistical uncertainty and expense? Fagin notes at the end that the Toms River saga was so expensive that it has helped to dissuade our government from pursuing similar investigations. What substances in our daily lives might be causing cancer not in a cluster, contributing to the noise that makes detection of industrial causes so difficult? And of course, what about the other parts of the world where most of our manufacturing has moved?

This turned into a little bit more than just a review, but it’s because I liked the book so much and would highly recommend it even if you don’t know much science or find chemical names intimidating. (That’s what wikipedia is for.) Fagin provides interesting historical background information and stories that helps to explain all of the concepts and challenges of the story. It’s powerful, exciting, and obvious that Fagin worked hard to get the story right. So go get it from your local library, and let me know what you think.



Book Review from the NYTimes


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