More than 20 years ago, Toms River made headlines when a local cancer epidemic was linked to chemical waste. It’s a story told by award-winning journalist Dan Fagin in his new book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider sat down with Fagin to discuss the legacy of Toms River and the lessons learned about the relationship between cancer and the environment.
The story begins, according to Fagin, in the 1950s when Swiss-based chemical company Ciba built a dye plant in Toms River after experiencing a century of difficulties elsewhere.
In the 1990s, some residents noticed a growing number of children with cancer in the Toms River area. Fagin said people began asking questions, but were repeatedly told not to worry about it.
One nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) refused to ignore the pattern, despite physicians telling her it was just all in her imagination, said Fagin.
“She thought something real was happening and that’s really been this pattern in Toms River [where] individuals really spoke up at key moments and eventually things came to light [that] one would expect never to come to light.”
Fagin added that the state Department of Health eventually became a positive force, but that early in the Toms River saga the department was not very responsive to citizen complaints.
When litigation ensued, Fagin said the parties eventually settled and avoided trial. But it still took several years for negotiations to result in a settlement, said Fagin.
Meanwhile, the cleanup of the billions of gallons of tainted ground water beneath the factory site continues. “That pumping is still going on and will be going on for at least another 12 years,” said Fagin.
However, Fagin said there is no reason for people to be alarmed about the current condition of the air or water in the region.
“People are paying so much attention to the Toms River environment that there’s no reason that people should be particularly concerned in Toms River right now. That’s not why I wrote this book.”
The reason for writing the book, he said, is to prevent similar instances in the future. But sadly, Fagin said the Toms River story keeps repeating itself in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“Chemical manufacturers moved onto the south to Alabama, Mississippi, then overseas and what I’m really concerned about right now is China which is now the absolute dominant force in chemical manufacturing. There are reasons that companies are there now. It’s not just because labor is cheap, it’s also because regulations are very weak.”