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Toms River: Science journalism as epic novel

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Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation - By Dan Fagin - Bantam Books, $18
  • Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
    By Dan Fagin
    Bantam Books, $18

We've all done battle with toxic emissions from industries that dump their by-products without regard to the consequences.

For me, it began with a little creek near my childhood South Bend home, a branch, it was said, of the Kankakee River, but really it was no more than a drainage ditch. But still, it had water and wildlife, and, of course, a crapload of pollution. Goodness knows what toxins I came into contact with during those formative years.

Later, at college in Bloomington, the problem was PCBs, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, an industrial compound used in electrical capacitors. The people who worked building the capacitors, as well as the scavengers who opened them up for their precious cargo (like copper), suffered illnesses stemming from the contact. As did the citizens of the Bloomington area, as the discarded PCBs leached into the soil and groundwater.

Now, I live in one of America's most polluted cities, when it comes to airborne particulates; and literally, in my backyard, is the White River, which, during sudden rainstorms, is the dumping ground for human sewage, courtesy of our combined sewer overflow system. We've got lead in our soil, mercury in our air and I witnessed, about a decade ago, a white wall of foam come pouring out of the Anderson Wastewater Treatment Plant that contaminated 57 miles along the White River, killing some five million fish.

You'd think I was past the point where my mind might be blown by a story about pollution.

Not so.

Dan Fagin's Toms River is an epic 500-page saga that is almost unbelievable in its scale and scope. It reads like a novel, with character arcs and plot developments and dramatic twists and turns and yes, suspense stretching even into the last few pages. But it's also a deeply researched investigative piece of journalism on the unconscionable malfeasance of a corporation - and the creepy complicity of a water company and local politicians and civic leaders.

It's also a story of science, science that illuminates, science that obfuscates, and ultimately, science that frustrates.

Fagin's main narrative stretches over sixty years, profiling Cincinnati Chemical Works, an industry that dumped so much effluent and sewage from their industrial production of dyes that they had to leave town. By 1949, they were looking to New Jersey, to a big plot of undeveloped land where they could place their chemical plant and pour their toxins directly into the Toms River. And so they did, by the billions of gallons.

Meanwhile, Union Carbide was producing its own toxins, and irresponsible dumping caused the aquifer beneath Toms River to foul.

These two massive toxic events combined to contaminate the inhabitants of the town. Numerous children found themselves with brain cancer, leukemia and other cancers.

Heartbreaking, yes, but it's hard to prove a causal connection between pollution and disease. And here's where Fagin's book really shines. It breaks from the "present" - i.e. the last half-century or so - to the past, in fact to the very beginnings of medicine's study of workplace exposure to toxins. He showcases the iconoclastic pioneers who first connected workplace pollutants to cancer. Fagin also explores the checkered past of the study of cancer clusters, and the difficulty in proving clusters of disease to be more than mere random chance.

In prose easy to understand, Fagin takes a long loping look at the science of toxic exposure, and trains his circumspect eye on government's compliance in industry's criminal behavior.

But it's the struggle for justice that forms the heart of his story: the parents of children who have cancer, the children themselves, and the one child in particular who becomes a hero in the story. The registered nurse who notes a significant number of child cancer cases originating from Toms River. The lawyer John Travolta played in A Civil Action, who tries to get the families and industry to negotiate a resolve, instead of engaging in a mutually destructive trial.

Richly told, Toms River is a multi-layered barnburner of a now universal tale. Earth is the dumping ground for industries, from massive chemical plants to our own individual automobiles. No surprise when you gauge how deeply disconnected we've become from nature and thus from ourselves.

Toms River details that disconnection, with a dollop of hope of how people, with help from science and luck, can still fight for a livable land.

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