“Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation”
By Dan Fagin
Bantam Books, New York. 2013.
Every few years, a science or environmental book comes along that’s so well-written that it not only reaches a broad audience, but nabs nearly every major award on its way to becoming a classic.
Timothy Egan accomplished that feat in 2006 with “The Worst Hard Time: he Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Rebecca Skloot followed in 2010 with “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” the story of a black tobacco farmer whose family was never compensated for the line of cells she unwittingly dedicated to medicine and that are still helping to cure and treat numerous diseases.
And in 2013 came “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.” Dan Fagin’s engrossing story of a once-popular New Jersey beach town that became known primarily for a child cancer cluster has done for epidemiology what Egan’s book did for soil conservation and Skloot’s for ethics in medicine.
Like those two books, it deserves every honor it’s gotten. There are many. Among them, the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction last year as well as the National Academies Science Book Award.
Epidemiology is a tough embrace. The science of examining environmental factors and applying them to molecular biology can be dry. Fagin makes the job a little harder on himself by taking us back to the roots of epidemiology in dye factories in Switzerland and Germany and in the chimneys of London. Poor boys who swept those chimneys contracted scrotal cancer, after contact with hazardous chemicals inside the chimneys, at a rate much higher than other boys.
But Fagin, a longtime reporter for Newsday who directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, doesn’t let the weight of his subject bog him down. He has a way of making the connections with the center of the story: a town with a cancer problem.
It’s one heck of a story. Children in the town of Toms River are slowly being diagnosed with extremely rare cancers, the kind that afflict 200 or 300 people in the country in a given year. It would be years before the victims’ families connected the dots, and decades before they determined a cause.
Toms River, like so many towns before it and since, was growing rapidly, accepting the trade-offs of jobs for pollution — though they didn’t necessarily know it.
In the case of Toms River, the pollution came from Ciba, a chemical plant that kept its dumping practices well-hidden from the public; a water company that used wells contaminated with toxic waste, and the Reich Farm, an egg farm that two Holocaust survivors unwittingly rented out to a dumper who ruined it with toxic waste from Union Carbide.
There seems to be a link between the pollution and the cancers, but how are they connected? It’s riveting to read how scientists chase the molecules, set up models to replicate water flow and isolate different chemicals to discern what poisoned the children of Toms River and how to prevent it from happening again.
The polluters had silent partners in the regulators who looked the other way. State and federal environmental authorities allowed discharge permits to lapse, failed to inspect wells and dump sites, and were in many instances complicit in
efforts not to inform New Jersey residents of the public health risks to drinking tap water and breathing the air.
At the heart of Fagin’s reporting are the children of Toms River. Michael Gillick, who defied all the odds and lived to be a young adult, has fought neuro blastoma, a rare nervous system cancer, since he was 3 months old. He is still fighting it; many days, he is too weak to even venture outside.
Gabrielle Pascarella never had much of a chance to fight; she died at just 14 months of a rare cancer known as neurocutaneous melanosis.
Randy Lynnworth died of a medulloblastoma before he graduated from high school.
Carrie-Anne Carter succumbed to Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, before she could finish college.
You don’t forget their names, or their stories, even as Fagin ambles down the drainpipes and into the landfills of New Jersey’s worst contamination.
And you can’t forget that, but for a handful of people in the right positions — an astute nurse, an indefatigable mother, a persistent state chemist, a dogged reporter and a chastened attorney — the people of Toms River would never have gotten any justice.
Whether they actually did is a matter of opinion. Dozens of children died, and money can never replace the parents’ pain or loss.
But Fagin’s reporting lays waste to the one-time conventional wisdom that there’s no such thing as a cancer cluster. In doing so, his incredible book gives life to the stories of Toms River as well as a path to making sure there will one day be fewer stories like theirs to tell.