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Toms River
Cover of Toms River
Toms River
A Story of Science and Salvation
by Dan Fagin
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WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • Winner of The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award • “A new classic of science reporting.”—The New York Times

The riveting true story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a fascinating scientific detective story, and an unforgettable cast of characters into a sweeping narrative in the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
One of New Jersey’s seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.
In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.
A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, 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 refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND KIRKUS REVIEWS
“A thrilling journey full of twists and turns, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.”—Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies
 
“A complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller.”—NPR
“Unstoppable reading.”The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Meticulously researched and compellingly recounted . . . It’s every bit as important—and as well-written—as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”The Star-Ledger
 
“Fascinating . . . a gripping environmental thriller.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“An honest, thoroughly researched, intelligently written book.”Slate
 
...
WINNER OF THE PULITZER PRIZE • Winner of The New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award • “A new classic of science reporting.”—The New York Times

The riveting true story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a fascinating scientific detective story, and an unforgettable cast of characters into a sweeping narrative in the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
One of New Jersey’s seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.
In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.
A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, 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 refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND KIRKUS REVIEWS
“A thrilling journey full of twists and turns, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.”—Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies
 
“A complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller.”—NPR
“Unstoppable reading.”The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Meticulously researched and compellingly recounted . . . It’s every bit as important—and as well-written—as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”The Star-Ledger
 
“Fascinating . . . a gripping environmental thriller.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
 
“An honest, thoroughly researched, intelligently written book.”Slate
 
...
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Excerpts-
  • Chapter One It is no small challenge to spend long days and longer nights in a place where children die, but Lisa Boornazian had the knack. She began working at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in 1991, during the summer of her senior year of nursing school at Villanova University. The following year she found a home in the cancer ward at CHOP. Back then she was Lisa Davenport, and not much older than some of her patients. "I loved working in oncology. I saw plenty of nurses who came to work at the unit and it wasn't what they expected. They just couldn't stay. But I loved it," she remembered. The ward was a surprisingly lively place, where little kids dashed down the wide hallways with their wheeled intravenous stands clattering beside them. The older children, though, were much more difficult to deal with. "The teenagers had a grasp of death, and what the diagnosis meant," Boornazian said. "The younger kids mostly had no idea." Those with brain or bone cancers faced long odds. Survival rates were better for children with blood cancers, principally leukemia and lymphoma, but their treatments took many months and were brutal: chemotherapy, often followed by radiation and bone marrow transplants.

    The work shifts on the oncology ward were organized in a way that made it impossible for the nurses to keep an emotional distance from their assigned patients, since the same three or four nurses would take care of a child for months on end. Their relationships with parents were equally intense. Many parents practically lived in the ward and went home only to shower and change clothes before rushing back. The nurses worked under the unforgiving gaze of mothers and fathers driven half-mad by lack of sleep and the sight of their children enduring a pitiless cycle of excruciating needle sticks, nausea attacks, and dressing changes. Parents would frequently take out their anger on the nurses, and the nurses who lasted on the ward learned to respond without rancor or condescension. The long shifts, especially the sleepless overnights, created an intimacy among nurse, parent, and child that no one else could share—certainly not the doctors and social workers, who were mere transients by comparison. The nurses were family. And when it was time for a funeral, the nurses did what family members do: They showed up, and they mourned.

    Funerals were part of the ritual of life on the oncology ward, and Lisa Boornazian (she married in 1993) attended her share, in towns all over New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. One in particular stuck in her mind. It was for a vivacious young woman named Carrie-Anne Carter who was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, during her senior year of high school. She was in treatment for more than a year, and Boornazian grew very close to her family. When the teenager died on February 6, 1995, Boornazian decided to make the two-hour drive from Philadelphia to attend the funeral in a town she had never visited before: Toms River, New Jersey.

    Although Boornazian had never been to Toms River, she knew the name well. By 1995, everyone who worked on the oncology ward at Children's Hospital knew about Toms River. Many years later, she explained why. "We began to notice that we were getting a lot of kids from the Toms River area" in 1993 and 1994, Boornazian recalled. "It wasn't just me. All of the nurses noticed it." CHOP drew its young cancer patients from a vast geographic area of more than ten million people, and some families would travel even farther—from as far away as South America and the Middle East, if they could afford it.
    Yet when Boornazian and the other nurses would look at the charts of the two-dozen or...
About the Author-
  • Dan Fagin is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. For fifteen years, he was the environmental writer at Newsday, where he was twice a principal member of reporting teams that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. His articles on cancer epidemiology were recognized with the Science Journalism Award of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Science in Society Award of the National Association of Science Writers.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 21, 2013
    Most people know Toms River, N.J., as one of the areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy. But Fagin, an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, reveals an earlier, less conspicuous disaster in the region. In a well-documented exposé of toxic industrial plants, corporate greed, and government neglect, Fagin (Toxic Deception, coauthor) plays detective to reveal the excessive human cost of chemical manufacturing hubs in the Jersey pinelands. Fagin focuses his research on cancer hot spots and how they affect the development of local children, but he also delves deeper into the region’s tragic history by tracing the arrival of chemical plants in the early 1950s and chronicling the massive contamination of waterways, soil, and air that followed shortly thereafter. Determined to reclaim their health and lives, the residents waged a long legal campaign, which resulted in a pioneering government study, the revelation of an extensive cancer zone, and a settlement of over $35 million. A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essential reading. Map. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from January 1, 2013
    An award-winning science journalist exposes how corporate interests and corrupt politicians almost turned a quiet, suburban New Jersey beach community into a toxic wasteland. Former Newsday reporter Fagin (Journalism/New York Univ.; co-author: Toxic Deception: How the Chemical Industry Manipulates Science, Bends the Law and Endangers Your Health, 1999) reveals the complex motives that blinded residents of Toms River to the consequences of the practices of the town's major employer, Ciba-Geigy, a chemical company based in Switzerland that produced dyes from coal tar. Since the early 1950s, the corporation "had produced about three billion pounds of dyes and plastics--along with perhaps forty billion gallons of wastewater and two hundred thousand drums of toxic waste," which ultimately found its way into their drinking water. In 1986, after mounting pressure from environmentalists resulted in some remediation, Ciba-Geigy announced the plant's imminent closure. They would be moving their operations to lower-wage areas with less regulation (in the U.S. and overseas to Asia). Despite increased environmental awareness over the years, the union (supported by residents who feared the loss of the high wages paid by the corporation) was complicit in a coverup of the extent of the contamination. While some people relied on backyard wells, the major drinking-water supplier in the town also had a vested interest in the coverup, and tourism was an economic consideration. Eventually, truth prevailed as parents became concerned by the number of children afflicted with cancer, and activists were supported by the local newspaper. A 2001 legal settlement was "one of the largest payouts ever, in a toxic-exposure case." Fagin weaves fascinating background material on epidemiology, statistical analysis and more into this hard-hitting chronicle. A gripping environmental thriller.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    March 1, 2013

    Toms River, NJ, is a small town near the Jersey shore that grew up around chemical industries and the wartime technology boom of World War II. Fagan (journalism, New York Univ.) explores the history of Toms River, and the effects on the town of its proximity to the local chemical plant. While he details the history of the town from its founding in the 1800s to now, his account is often muddled by tangential histories, such as a detailed description of the discovery of the vat dyeing process. In particular, Fagin focuses on the extremely high occurrence of childhood cancer in Toms River, which has been linked to the area's air and water pollution. While each piece of the history may be interesting and informative, as a whole, the book does not flow. VERDICT Readers may be bogged down by the minutia of this book, but its detailed text will appeal to in-depth researchers, especially those with a personal connection to the region or familiar with the chemistry detailed herein.--Dawn Lowe-Wincentsen, Oregon Inst. of Technology, Portland

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    February 15, 2013
    What was in the water in Toms River? A seemingly high number of childhood cancer cases in the New Jersey town prompted the question, but there turned out to be no easy answer. As Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010) investigated the tragic impact that unethical scientific pursuits had on a family, Toms River unravels the careless environmental practices that damaged a community. The book goes beyond the Toms River phenomenon itself to examine the many factors that came together in that one spot, from the birth of the synthetic chemical industry to the evolution of epidemiology to the physicians who invented occupational medicine. Former Newsday environmental journalist Fagin's work may not be quite as riveting in its particulars as Skloot's book, but it features jaw-dropping accounts of senseless waste-disposal practices set against the inspiring saga of the families who stood up to the enormous Toms River chemical plant. The fate of the town, we learn, revolves around the science that cost its residents so much.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • The New York Times "It's high time a book did for epidemiology what Jon Krakauer's best-selling Into Thin Air did for mountain climbing: transform a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end. And such is the power of Dan Fagin's Toms River, surely a new classic of science reporting . . . a sober story of probability and compromise, laid out with the care and precision that characterizes both good science and great journalism."
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize--winning The Emperor of All Maladies "A thrilling journey full of twists and turns, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist."
  • The Philadelphia Inquirer "Immaculate research . . . unstoppable reading . . . Fagin's book may not endear him to Toms River's real estate agents, but its exhaustive reporting and honest look at the cause, obstacles, and unraveling of a cancerous trail should be required environmental reading."
  • The Star-Ledger "Fagin's meticulously researched and compellingly recounted story of Toms River families struggling to find out what was causing the cancers that claimed their children belongs on the shelf with other environmental/medical mysteries. It's every bit as important--and as well-written--as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks."
  • Kirkus Reviews (starred review) "Fascinating . . . a gripping environmental thriller."
  • Slate "An honest, thoroughly researched, intelligently written book."
  • Nature "This hard-hitting account of cancer epidemiology in the New Jersey town of Toms River is a triumph."
  • USA Today "Absorbing and thoughtful."
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe "In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin's compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development."--Mother Jones "As Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks investigated the tragic impact that unethical scientific pursuits had on a family, Toms River unravels the careless environmental practices that damaged a community. . . . Features jaw-dropping accounts of senseless waste-disposal practices set against the inspiring saga of the families who stood up to the enormous Toms River chemical plant. The fate of the town, we learn, revolves around the science that cost its residents so much."--Booklist "A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essentialreading."--Publishers Weekly "Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town. Along the way--as we meet chemists, businessmen, doctors, criminals, and outraged citizens--we see how Toms River is actually a microcosm of a world that has come to depend on chemicals without quite comprehending what they might do to our health."--Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex "At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town's struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book."
  • Charleston Post and Courier "This book is required phys. ed., a plunge into one of the uglier pits of the world we are manufacturing."
  • Before It's News "A surprisingly exciting tour through the yawning
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