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 60-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.
"Fascinating...a gripping environmental thriller." (Kirkus Reviews)
"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.” (Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe)
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Toms River Resident
I have lived in Toms River twice – first while in high school, from 1984-1989, and it is my current residence since 2000. When my family originally moved to New Jersey in 1984, we lived not too far from where the first break in the Ciba-Giegy pipeline occurred. The story Fagin tells is the background story of my high school and college years. Many of the players he mentioned are real people to me - Bill McVeigh was my history teacher in high school and the ex-navy seal who owned a dive shop in town whose advice was sought after by the Greenpeace disrupters was the father of one of my brother's closest high school buddies. While doing some student teaching in a Toms River elementary school located in the core zone, there was a young girl in that class 6th grade class with leukemia – we knew people in town who had young kids with cancer. The book doesn't say, but Bill McVeigh, the Toms River High School East history teacher who lived on Cardinal Drive (which backed up to Ciba-Giegy’s property) also died prematurely from cancer a few years ago, at far too young an age.
As a resident of this town, Fagin’s book rings resoundingly and disturbingly true to me and my memory of the events as they unfolded. Small town politics mixed with corporate greed and people who knew if they lost that job at Ciba that there wasn't much else in town with a comparable earning potential made for a perfect storm – just the right combination for good people to look the other way or stop asking hard questions. Ciba was the big bad wolf, but more disturbing to me, actually, was the Riech Farm site, which I don't recall getting the same press and which caused far more pollution and contamination for a considerably longer period of time, with absolutely no regulation. That Furnicola never paid a dime of the $40/day he told the Reich’s he’d pay them to allow him to store the waste drums on their property is par for the sad and disturbing course of the story. Definitely not the kind of thing one wants the hometown to be famous for.
That research is so cumbersome and so expensive to conduct on cluster cancers (and I suspect a potential link to an area Austism cluster as well), is beyond frustrating to me as a community member. The truth is out there, and it’s always complex. Always. Too expensive or too cumbersome is a b.s. excuse to keep turning a blind eye, and not looking at the NUMEROUS locations where similar events have occurred, because, it’s just too hard and too expensive to prove, and the corporations have way deeper pockets to obfuscate than the general public does.
I would recommend this to anyone who lives in Toms River, or in an area where you suspect disease due to industrial waste teratogens. Fagin’s research is excellent and his attention to detail was well appreciated by me. He discusses complex medical and statistical issues, but does so in a way that makes them understandable and relatable. The story of how the offending chemicals were discussed, how their production evolved, and why they were so in demand, along with the historical exploration of how we’ve come to our current understanding of how cancer occurs, were also very well done.
- Beezie Reader
Wonderful writing - way too long and repetitive
No, I feel like I got everything I needed out of the story in one shot.
I loved to hear the very researched and interesting story of what CIBA-GEIGY did to Toms River, NJ - I was on the edge of my seat for the first half of the book
I wouldn't have had the time to read it. However on my hour and a half drive to and from work, it was perfect to listen to.
Yes, but it would need to be seriously edited for that to happen.
I really loved the beginning of this book, and have recommended it to everyone I know... That being said, I decided to stop listening to it midway thru... It didn't need to be as long as it was - There was a lot of information repeated over and over with slight differences, and I just didn't want to hear them again. Now, I LOVED to hear the accounts the first time tho, so I do recommend the book... I just wish it was at least half the length it was...