If you have never heard of Toms River, New Jersey, then Dan Fagin’s new book, subtitled A Story of Science and Salvation, might seem like just another a riveting narrative—in this case, about how a town’s water supply became contaminated and what happened as a result. Indeed, it can stand alone as a compelling page-turner.
But if you know Toms River, if you have lived there or have friends from there, then you know about the cancer cluster. You know about Ciba-Geigy, the chemical company that dumped toxic waste into the river and polluted the wells. You know about Union Carbide and the illegally-dumped drums that also polluted the water. And you definitely know about the children who got sick and died. You probably know some adults there who got cancer, too. When you read this book, it will bring back everything you know—everything you heard and read in the newspaper over the years—and it will remind you of the relentless awfulness of that story.
As dreadful as the story is, Dan Fagin tells it well: his writing is clear, cogent, and quick. Although he occasionally gets a little into the weeds with scientific details, his comprehensive explanation of what happened in Toms River from the early 1960s forward answers many, many questions that as far as I know (and I grew up near there) were never previously answered. So the book is both disturbing and satisfying.
It is also alarming because it reminds us of how vulnerable we are. Reading about the prevalence of illegal dumping in the Pine Barrens, I suddenly remembered how the water fountains in my high school used to taste like paint thinner. And that made me think about all of the teachers who have since acquired cancer. A mystery yet unsolved.
I am thankful to Dan Fagin for writing this book. I hope it will spur more research and action to protect our health.