Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

toms river
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For the readers of A Civil Action, The Emperor of all Maladies andThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a ripping scientific detective story, deep historical research and an unforgettable cast of characters into a riveting narrative that will leave readers asking, could it happen in my town, too?

On a cool September day in 1971, an independent trucker with a history of legal scrapes flung open the double doors of his eighteen-wheeler and began tossing leaky drums of industrial waste onto the sandy soil of a rundown chicken farm in Toms River, New Jersey. Eight years later, a schoolteacher who lived four miles away gave birth to a boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast growing tumors that soon riddled his face and chest. The doctors predicted he would not reach his first birthday. They were wrong, but that was only one of many surprises that would eventually come to light in Toms River, culminating in 2001 with a record legal settlement believed to top $35 million and an unprecedented government study confirming the existence of a long-suspected cluster of childhood cancer linked to polluted water and air. 

A detective story rooted in a scientific quest thousands of years old, 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 would not keep silent.


Toms River was an interesting read. Definitely not a happy fun tale, it made me angry at times, but interesting none the less. It was really like two books in one - the history of the dye industry and cancer and then what happened in Toms River. Sometimes this worked, the author flowed seamlessly from Toms River to history, and sometimes it didn't. Sometimes it was jarring how it switched topics suddenly. 

Toms River is a town in New Jersey that was kind of ruined by a big chemical company. A company who makes dyes for clothing and such. It is one of those stories about how big corporations don't really care what they do, who they harm, as long as they are making money. Yes, that is a bit cynical, but stories like this happen a bit too often I think. Just look at Flint Michigan for a current example. Reading this story made me really angry at times. Angry at the people in power who could have stopped some of this from happening, but instead looked the other way. Angry at the corporations who know there are issues, but do nothing. is not good. And Toms River is just one example. 

One of the things I did really enjoy about this story, even though it wasn't always done well, was the history. How different color dyes came about and the history of cancer. I always thought of cancer as a new disease, but according to this book it really isn't. It was fascinating reading how people went about researching cancer and making dyes and all of it. It was a lot of information I didn't previously know as I never looked into it before. Also the science stuff, trying to see if there is a cancer cluster and everything involved was really fascinating. It is crazy how hard it is to make any kind of correlation in such a small sample size. Yes, looking in from the outside it looks obvious at times, but to scientifically say that when you look at the different types of cancer in an area, some only having one or two cases, that it is a cluster is hard. It really showed how frustrating it would be to work in cancer research. At one moment the author goes through how this Toms River case came to be and all of the things that just happened to happen at the right time to make it come to fruition and it was crazy. I can understand people whose job it is to look for things like cancer clusters and how you could get so disillusioned so quickly. How it can seem to be like such a waste of time since you don't really get anywhere most times. I never thought about it, but now that I read this it makes me want to know more. Really an interesting read. 

Then you have the company who destroyed a town just because. The company's history, how it would move from place to place once their current location was no longer open to them dumping their waste and wanting them to clean up their act, was frustrating to read. I don't know how you could read it and not want to yell at them. They knew they were dumping stuff that was not good into Toms River, but they simply didn't care enough to stop. Then when things get a bit dicey, when it looks like it will be obvious that they are ruining the area, they have to try and find other ways of handling toxic waste. That alone, how they dealt with the waste and how there seemed to have been little oversight in the whole thing, was surprising. I don't know that most people knew what they were doing, what they were really storing or whatever, but the ways people tried to make a quick buck and cut corners wasn't good. The whole ordeal was frustrating to read. I would like to think that things have gotten better, that Toms River couldn't happen again in the US, but I am not so sure. Like I said above, look at Flint. That was just recently in the news and while I think things are definitely better we still have a ways to go. Toms River was a fascinating, frustrating, angering read but I am glad I read it. The author goes into a lot of detail so it is a slow read, but I really enjoyed it. As I said the two stories, the history and Toms River, didn't always mesh well, but overall it was a good read. 

Rating: ★★★★


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