Review: ‘Toms River’ explores side-effects of industrial arrogance

TOMS RIVER: A Story of Science and Salvation. By Dan Fagin. Bantam Books. 462 pages. $28.

This story is horrible. That’s no reason to avoid reading “Toms River.” It is, in fact, exactly why you should read it if you live anywhere near heavy industry, have economic development recruiters seeking it or have any remaining faith in regulators to make sure its discharges are safe.

This book is no fun to read. You will squirm, a lot, as Dan Fagin details the ravages of cancer in child after child in the New Jersey coastal community where chemical industries discharged into the ground and drinking water for a half-century. Here’s a disturbing moment with one child whose face bulged with tumors, from a 1988 public hearing:

“(T)he small boy beside her asked to speak. He had not filled out a request card, but it made no difference. No one would have dared to tell Michael Gillick he could not speak. As he began, the television cameras scrambled for a clear shot of the boy whose face seemed the very personification of cancer’s torment. ‘If you have a child, picture him with cancer because of this water,’ he said. ‘Think of what it could do to him. He could die at any second, any minute, so please stop!’ As he spoke, there was no other sound in the auditorium but the clicking of cameras. Michael Gillick’s voice broke and he began to cry.”

Fagin’s story is a forensic on how the industries, legally and not so legally, dumped while being disingenuous about it, how public officials fell all over themselves to allow and provide for it because jobs were created, as “fixes” were made that included pumping the waste through a pipe into the Atlantic Ocean offshore near popular beach towns.

Fagin chronicles the travails of the residents as they grapple with clusters of cancers that officials say aren’t statistically relevant enough to suggest an environmental cause, who finally get the studies they need, then see no real vindication.

Fagin is exhaustive to the point of exhausting: He delves into the minutiae of the science of cancer, detailing the history of research from Hippocrates to DNA. Sometimes it intrigues: “A tumor has even been discovered in a dinosaur bone at least a hundred and fifty million years old.” But other times it gets tedious.

His dogged pursuit of a complete story breaks down at one telling point: He mentions mob connections to illegal dumping in Toms River and elsewhere, but doesn’t pursue the point any further.

Regardless, this book is required phys. ed., a plunge into one of the uglier pits of the world we are manufacturing. Take it. Just don’t swallow.

Reviewer Bo Petersen is an environmental reporter at The Post and Courier.

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