Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

Toms RiverI downed Toms River with gusto, fear, and wonder, and it left me (really truly) murmuring, “Wow, wow, wow...” But these emotions are completely different, you say? That’s what makes this book so amazing! Toms River is a powerful, terrifying, and thought-provoking story that is basically an all-inclusive unofficial textbook for environmental health. I learned so much from it, and I wish all scientists and non-scientists (as in EVERYONE) get a chance to read this book and be more aware of the gray areas that arise from environmental issues, particularly in the research methods that are used to dissect them.

Toms River tells the tale of a town in New Jersey that became a dumping ground for a dye manufacturing company. The dye industry, which started in the 1860s, generated more chemical waste than dye; this inefficient process resulted in waste being dumped in nearby flowing bodies of water (why else would chemical companies set up shop near rivers?) as well as in the soil on company property. In 1952, Ciba set up Toms River Chemical – later the Ciba-Geigy Toms River Plant – in Toms River, New Jersey, and this plant produced 200,000 drums of hazardous waste and 40 billion gallons of wastewater in the thirty-four years it was running. Years down the road, families in Toms River start noticing what seems like an abnormally large number of kids with cancer, and they begin gathering evidence to prove that Ciba’s dye manufacturing plant and its improper waste disposal techniques are the cause of it.

This book captured me from the very first page, which had a beautiful passage by Lois Levin Roisman:
In Toms River, Fagin brings together a wide variety of experts from both the past and present to address the public health issues at hand; from toxicology, occupational health, and environmental epidemiological issues to public health ethics and environmental agencies and regulations, he’s got it all covered. Famous “firsts” in public health, such as the beginning of epidemiology from John Snow’s cholera outbreak investigation in 1854, are revived with such energy and momentum that I felt every successful and disappointing result. This book included so many scientists whom I look up to and clarified so many groundbreaking studies that I’ve heard of. (I wish the Ames assay was included though. #nerdy)

These accounts have been interwoven with the actual story, and for a book that jumps between so many different time periods (the “first” experiments, the history of the dye industry, the history of Toms River, the history of the dye industry IN Toms River, et cetera), Toms River flows surprisingly well. There’s a sense of impending doom as the story progresses, because the association between the hazardous waste being produced, the drinking water contamination, and the cancer incidences seem to be so related to each other that it’s scary, but alas, the research says otherwise. I expected Fagin to end the story on a triumphant note, something like “Ta-da! Epidemiology and other research methods solve everything!” (okay, maybe except for the “Ta-da!” part), so I was disappointed to learn that our scientific knowledge can only go so far.

But I was more so disappointed with the public health ethics and regulation issues that Fagin highlighted in Toms River. Fagin succeeded in keeping a mostly unbiased view of all the players in the Toms River issue, but it seems to be a problem that companies (and our society) have in general: taking the easy way out, and choosing profit over safety. We make the same mistakes over and over again... for example, nanoparticles is the next big thing for drug delivery, stink-proofing clothes, and many other useful applications, but we’re implementing them before studying their effects on the respiratory system (since inhalation is the most likely route of exposure) and their overall effects on our bodies. Same thing with the gazillion new chemicals that are being added to consumer products everyday, and we have no clue whether or not the risk of using them are worth it. Consumers don’t care, and companies don’t tell.

Anyway, THIS is what you can expect from reading Toms River:

Mhm, outrage. The book acts as a form of risk communication, and Fagin has presented a simplified version of public health research that is easy to understand and interpret. I am ever grateful that he pointed out the flaws in research, because people seem to think that research is very black-and-white, yay-we-cured-cancer or boo-we-didn’t-cure-cancer, when it’s really not that simple. Toms River is a great example of this, and I’d have to say that it’s a necessary wake-up call for many people, myself included.

So overall, Toms River lives up to its “environmental thriller” classification, and you should all read it GO GO GO. And if you especially liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, care about the environment, or want to feel angry and outraged, Toms River is definitely the book to read.


9 thoughts on “Review: Toms River by Dan Fagin

  1. I don’t really need a book to get angry about environmental issues, lol. But this does sound like a great, if simplified, read which I’m sure I’d enjoy. I shall have to watch out for it – with a cover like that I’d love a paperback. πŸ™‚

    • Oops, didn’t mean to turn you off with the anger part, haha – I’m sure you can read it and not feel angry, since it does feel kind of like a fictional thriller at times. πŸ˜›

      Unfortunately, the paperback version isn’t coming out until 2015 (according to Amazon)... I own the hardcover, but I’ll probably end up buying a paperback version too when it comes out just so I can lend it out or gift it to friends.

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