A N.J. town fights cancer

"Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" by Dan Fagin.
"Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation" by Dan Fagin. (From the book jacket)

Toms River had two toxic enemies, a writer finds, and its children were the victims.

Posted: March 18, 2013

Toms River

A Story of Science and Salvation

By Dan Fagin

Bantam. 560 pp. $28

Reviewed by Dawn Fallik

In a time when parents research the origins of their children's toys and diners ask whether their chicken is free-range, antibiotic-free, and locally bred, the chemicals in the local water and air often remain unquestioned.

It's hard to read Dan Fagin's new book, Toms River, without glancing at that cup of water and wondering why we're so complacent about the most common elements in our lives. The award-winning former Newsday reporter and New York University professor's immaculate research about the New Jersey town and its oddly high number of childhood cancer patients is intriguing and depressing.

The book traces the evolution of the town and its two toxic enemies.

There's Ciba-Geigy Corp., a dye-manufacturing plant on 1,400 acres that dumped much of its waste directly into the river, as well as into pits and lagoons on its sandy, porous site.

The second villain is an independent trucker from Union Carbide Corp. who unloaded thousands of drums filled with chemical waste into a trench on a former egg farm. The chemicals dumped at the Reich Farm seeped down through the soil, creating a plume that contaminated the wells providing Toms River with its water.

Residents began noticing changes quickly. Local swimming holes became unusable because the water tasted horrible and left purple foam on the skin. Fish began dying. Soon, so did the children, developing leukemia, brain cancer, and other rare diseases so frequently that a local mother began creating a map to chart them all.

Fagin meticulously details each chemical, discovery process, and personal connection. Although Toms River follows developments over time, it's split into four main sections: the companies and waste disposal, citizen involvement and initial testing, significant findings, and lasting impacts.

The first half of the book is heavy on facts, and it leapfrogs through time without warning. At one point, we're reading about a Toms River child suddenly developing small lumps across his back and down his legs. Then we're at a Kenyan lake bed in 1932, then reading about how the Greeks dealt with tumors, and back to an 1875 cancer development theory, all within a few pages. Names come and go so quickly it's hard to connect - or remember whom we're reading about.

It's really in the third section, "Counting," that Toms River hits its stride and moves from interesting to unstoppable reading.

That's when Fagin homes in on the people, including a 1995 domino chain started by a Philadelphia pediatric oncology nurse who noticed that many of her patients came from the same town. She mentioned it to a family member who happened to work for the EPA. The EPA official, in turn, contacted the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which then formally requested a cancer-cluster study from the New Jersey state Health Department in 1995.

"I've been with the EPA for 23 years, and that one phone call may have been the biggest contribution I've made to the protection of public health and the environment," said Laura Janson, the EPA employee. "That was my moment, I guess."

Government (and particularly then-Gov. Christine Whitman) often presents more of an obstacle than a help to the community in Toms River. Fagin does an excellent job of explaining the scientific process in determining an official "cancer cluster," and why they are so rarely confirmed when, to the public, they seem so obvious.

Toms River is one of the two nonoccupational cancer clusters specifically connected to a chemical exposure. The other is Woburn, Mass., setting of the book A Civil Action. Water contamination in Woburn was linked to higher rates of childhood leukemia.

In both cases, there's a frustrated mother fighting to find answers. In Toms River, it's Linda Gillick, whose son Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma as a child. Gillick is a tireless, passionate, savvy advocate for the town and its residents, often using the media to force government officials to move faster and take action.

Though Michael agreed to be interviewed for Toms River, Linda Gillick did not, for reasons unexplained. She still heads the Ocean of Love support group in Toms River.

In December 2001, 69 families reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the two chemical companies and the town's water company. Ciba (now Ciba Specialty Chemicals) closed in 1996. The EPA listed the Reich Farm on its Superfund list in 1983, but did not find that the contamination plume had reached the town's water supply until 1991. It continues to monitor the site, and, in July 2012, released a study that found Toms River had tried to shake the cloud of its contaminated past.

On the town's Wikipedia site, the five-decade-long investigation into the high rates of childhood cancer is limited to a single paragraph, buried beneath a long description of the town's 1998 Little League World Series win.

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.

Dawn Fallik is a former Inquirer staff writer who teaches journalism at the University of Delaware.

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