Tuesday, March 19, 2013

TOM'S RIVER by Dan Fagin

Today is the publication date for this impressive nonfiction book from Bantam.  I read it weeks ago but had to wait until today to post my review.  

You may have lived in New Jersey in the 1980s (as we did) and therefore have heard about the cancer cluster in Tom's River, or it may have made the New York newspapers.  By now the basic facts are an old story unfortunately repeated in many other parts of our country and abroad.  The mother of a boy with cancer started hearing about other children who had it.  She put up a map of the Brick Township area of which Tom's River is a part, and she began to put a push-pin at every home where she heard of a case of childhood cancer.  It didn't take very long before that map had so many pins it was shocking.  Rather than just sit on this knowledge, she began to campaign for the state, or someone, to investigate what could be causing this phenomenon that looked like an epidemic to her.

In a wooded area of the township hidden away from prying eyes was a Ciba-Geigy facility making dyes.  The processes used produced toxic waste which they disposed of in open pits or the river, Tom's River.  They burned other waste at night when the black smoke and putrid smell would be less noticeable.  Meanwhile, the toxic waste simply ate away the tarp covering the bottom of the pits and proceeded to filter down through the sandy soil to the aquifer.

That part of New Jersey is called the Pine Barrens.  It is known for its sandy soil and the aquifer which is one of the most valuable assets of the state.  That plume of toxins got bigger and bigger until it entered the aquifer where the town of Tom's River had its water wells.  Now many of the people who lived there, including Ciba-Geigy employees, were drinking tainted water.  Did that cause the cancer cluster?

Fagin's book is the long story of the fight to instigate an investigation, the pollution that was going on, the reluctance of the chemical employees to complain about anything because the jobs were needed so badly, and the children who contracted cancer many of whom died.

This is a long book because it's a long story, but also because Fagin traces back dye making to its beginnings in Europe and he also traces back the history of dumping toxic waste.  Sound boring?  Couldn't be farther from it.  This is a fascinating, if upsetting book that I read slowly to make sure I could retain it all.  Doesn't matter if you don't know or even like science (like me) because Fagin explains everything so that anyone can understand.

Highly recommended reading.
Source:  LibraryThing win


  1. It does sound most interesting, though sad and troubling. It is such an old story. The horribly polluting company is what provides the livelihood for the townspeople, some of whom end up dying. There's a wonderful book I read earlier this year that, while it doesn't deal much with health problems, does illustrate how such companies are woven into the fabric of life. It is called When We Were the Kennedys by Monica Wood. Nonfiction. Excellent.

  2. Nan, Thanks for the tip. I'll look for the book.