Book Review: "Tom's River: A Story of Science and Salvation" by Dan Fagin


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Review by Carolyn Johnsen

“Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation”
Author: Dan Fagin
Publisher: Bantam Books

“Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” by Dan FaginIn “Toms River” Dan Fagin explores the long route that parents and public officials took in Toms River, N.J., to scientifically identify the childhood cancer cluster found there in the mid-1990s and then to determine what to do about that discovery.

In splendid fashion, Fagin documents the science of this complex topic. He deftly explains the limits of epidemiology, “a science of probability, not certainty.” He explains contested science and the difference between causation and correlation so readers can understand the concepts, and he fully explores the complex mathematics of cancer-cluster identification. Fagin writes that the so-called “evidence” provided by nonscientists is typically marred by limited understanding of the science, by unreliability and by eagerness for public officials to act; he reminds readers that the underfunded, understaffed EPA relies upon companies to self-report pollutants coming from their factories.

In the process of arriving at evidence that there was, indeed, a cancer cluster in Toms River, Fagin explores the history of scientists’ efforts to understand cancer’s causes and behavior.

Nebraskans may be especially interested in this story: One of the major characters, the Ciba-Geigy Corporation—specifically its offspring Novartis—has a branch in northeast Lincoln. In the 1960s Ciba-Geigy (Ciba since 1995, when Geigy was dropped) built a pipeline that discharged the company’s waste into the Atlantic Ocean. This pipeline leaked.

Part of the drama of “Toms River” involves the conflicts between concerns for public health and those for economic growth. Toms River residents and government officials alike welcomed Ciba-Geigy (originally Toms River Chemical) to town and cheered its growth. By the late 1950s the company had become Ocean County’s largest employer. But the plant’s managers—many of them in Switzerland— typically looked for the cheapest alternative for waste disposal. Eventually the company handled chemical waste from Union Carbide, and the EPA designated two Superfund sites in Toms River.

The book reads like a detective story, with women like Linda Gillick pressuring public officials to determine why so many children (Gillick’s child included) in Toms River developed cancer. Fagin describes Gillick as “relentless” and writes, “Easing up was not her style.” With the eventual financial settlement and no admission by the companies—including United Water of Toms River—of any culpability, Fagin writes, “The Toms River families had made history, even if they were too wrung out to savor their accomplishment.”

In telling the dramatic story of Toms River, Fagin includes the efforts of Greenpeace activists to call attention to the pollution. (Was it the water or the air? Both?) He compares the events in Toms River, N.J., to those in Woburn, Mass. (the topic of the movie “A Civil Action”) and tells the story of attorney Jan Schlichtmann, who was involved in both situations. Fagin also writes that industrial pollution is wide- spread in China, aided by government indifference to the suffering that pollution may cause.

Despite the fact that Fagin apparently left no public record unread, two factors weaken “Toms River”: It needs a timeline so readers don’t have to make their own, and readers should know that former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, whose administration was deeply involved in the finale of the Toms River saga, became chief of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001–2003 under President George W. Bush.

Dan Fagin, however, has done a great good deed both for the public and for journalism with “Toms River.” Siddhartha Mukerjee, M.D., the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies,” puts it well in a blurb for the book. In describing Fagin’s efforts, Mukerjee writes “… Fagin handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.”

Fagin is past president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and an award-winning former environmental reporter for “Newsday.” He now directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and teaches in related fields. By his own account, Fagin spent seven years working on “Toms River,” interviewing dozens of people, reading hundreds of documents and combing local newspaper files. He provides ample evidence of this work in fascinating and comprehensive notes at the end of the book.

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