Environmental Reporter Discusses Book About Toms River Chemical Exposure

Rampant pollution ravaged Toms River 60 years ago, causing cancer clusters and triggering a new chapter in environmental protection. Environmental reporter and author of Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation, Dan Fagin, told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams that his book follows the story of how the chemical industry impacted Toms River.

Toms River the book is about Toms River the town and Toms River the town like any other town until the chemical industry showed up,” said Fagin. “The book is sort of a saga in a way, detective story about what happened in that town and who was hurt as a result and how do you go about trying to do the very difficult work of connecting cause and effect.”

Fagin describes the book as a mystery story and says it chronicles the issues that occurred in Toms River scientifically.

When Ciba-Geigy, a Swiss company, opened in Toms River, it had solved the town’s economic growth problem but children began going to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with cancer. According to Fagin, children did end up at the hospital with cancer, but that it was a very slow process and it took a while to understand the consequences of exposure from the company. He said that it took many decades and that the book discusses why it was difficult for the state and others to make connections when children were getting sick.

“Part of what I describe in the book is why, so difficult for us for what seems so obvious now,” said Fagin. “Why was it so difficult then for people to make these kinds of connections? And even when people started to notice the unusual number of children were getting sick in town. Even then, it was highly controversial and not at all clear. Only in retrospect was it clear.”

Fagin said there was likely denial because people don’t like to admit their mistakes.

“Well part of it surely is about human psychology,” Fagin said. “We don’t like to admit we’ve made a terrible error. … We have a way of rationalizing things that are working for us and the chemical plant in particular and other things that were happening were contributing to this economic growth in Toms River.”

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established and Superfund site cleanups occurred all over the country. In the book, Fagin mentions China and how that country has “cancer villages” where cancer rates have soared above the national average. Fagin said that industrialization has affected them and that there is a burgeoning environmental movement in China and that the country faces difficult obstacles.

Fagin also said that even though the EPA has been created in the United States, it has not taken care of the problem here.

“We shouldn’t assume that when the EPA was created, we took care of this problem in the United Sates, not by a long shot,” said Fagin. “One of the things I described in the book is how all through the 1990s there were continuing exposures in Toms River.”