How A Health Crisis Created A Town Full Of Environmentalists

Sep 7, 2017

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River, Dan Fagin uses history, personal narrative, health data and investigative journalism to tell the story of a small town’s decades-long struggle with chemical pollution. 

Allegheny Front's Kara Holsopple spoke with Fagin in advance of his Sept. 7 visit to Pittsburgh to learn more about what we can learn from Toms River.

Kara Holsopple: Toms River was a small town and river, literally a backwater, you say, in the book near the Jersey Shore. And in 1950s, the chemical dye manufacturing industry set up shop there. So for people who haven’t read the book, can you describe what happened next?

Dan Fagin: I originally set out to write a book about this particular factory in a particular town and the environmental consequences thereof. But what I discovered is that there’s much more to the story. By the time the chemical industry came to Toms River, there had been more than a century of very bad environmental experience, in terms of polluting drinking water and also air emissions from from these dye plants. And sure enough, that’s what happened in Toms River, too. The first thing that was contaminated were the chemical plant’s own water wells. But instead of fixing the problem in a fundamental way by improving pollution control, they simply relocated their wells and just kind of took no notice of the fact that these chemical pollutants were seeping toward the  public water supply for the entire town. To this day, we don’t really know what all was in that wastewater, but certainly it was enough to have some significant toxic effects on wildlife and also on the people who drank that water.

Fagin's book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

  KH:  Ciba, the dye manufacturer which became Toms River Chemical, and eventually produced other really hazardous materials, originally operated on the Ohio River in Cincinnati. And in some ways, it’s a familiar story: a polluting industry and the environmental and health consequences for people who live nearby. How is Toms River unique, and how is it similar to other places in the country that have industrial polluters?

DF: I actually think it’s quite similar to many other places. I mean one of the truly unusual things about Toms River is that we really know what happened now because there was so much elaborate study both of the pollution and the health effects of that pollution. In most other places, we don’t know that. However, on the Ohio River where this particular operation was before it moved to Toms River, we also have really excellent and really shocking documentation of the extent of the pollution and also the extent of the cancer clusters among employees of Cincinnati Chemical. And yes, they moved to Toms River because they wanted a place that was relatively isolated, where there would not be a lot of people of poking around and seeing what was going on. And they also needed a place where there was sandy soil because the big advantage of sandy soil is that if you dump liquid on sandy soil it “disappears.” Of course it doesn’t really disappear.

KH:  Eventually, over the course of several decades, some people did start to question the chemical company. The company had started piping the waste directly into the ocean. How did what they were doing become public knowledge? How was it investigated and brought to light?

DF: The first way that that it came to light was that a some people – a relatively small number of people- were concerned about the construction of that waste pipeline that you mentioned.  And they started asking questions, “Why is this pipeline necessary?” And a few of them actually discovered that it was because the public drinking water wells of Toms River had been affected by this contamination. But the chemical company and the water company did a very good job of keeping the lid on that information. They were very vague and really misleading about what had actually happened to the public water supply. And it’s one thing for the chemical company to do that. But in this case the water company did it as well. So so this pipeline was built, and then there was a leak in that pipeline a few years later. That caused more people to ask questions. And then in the 80s and 90s when concerns about cancer clusters among employees and especially among children in the town became more prominent, concern began to grow. But what I found was truly shocking was that this process took so long. There were so many people in town that were willing to just ride the wave and the chemical company did a lot in the short run economically for Toms River. These were well-paying jobs. And it was really a place of upward economic mobility, upward social mobility, where these folks thought they were living the American dream and even though there were clear indications that there was a dark side to what was happening, many people chose not to pay attention.

KH: The book is really beautifully written. It’s a real pleasure to read. It almost reads like a novel. You sort of set up this side by side story right at the beginning of the history of chemical dye manufacturing, and the rise of chemical companies. And then the history and practice of epidemiology, looking at the incidence of disease over a population. In Toms River, there were a number of cases of childhood cancers. Why is it still so hard to prove a relationship between toxic waste pollution and cancers of people living nearby chemical plants or industrial plants?

DF: This is a crucial question. People have tried to unpack this complicated relationship between environmental exposure and chronic diseases, especially cancer, since ancient times. And it turns out it’s really hard to do for multiple reasons. The simplest reason is that, in most cases, diseases have multiple causes. Almost all cancers have multiple causes and actually often require multiple triggering events, usually some kind of multiple genetic mutations. And then most cancers have very long latency periods. Sometimes years can pass between the initial triggering event and the actual diagnosis of some type of cancer. On the other hand, epidemiology is really fascinating scientific detective work. And its the primary tool that’s used along with toxicology to try to understand what has happened. And it turns out that epidemiology is both a weak tool and also a powerful tool. It’s weak in the sense that it tells us only about probabilities not certainties. We can almost never go back in time and say with certainty what the cause of a particular case of chronic diseases like cancer was. On the other hand, we can look at an aggregation of cases and use really sound statistical methods and speak with high confidence that a particular grouping of cases was was not a fluke, was not just a matter of chance but was almost certainly triggered by particular exposures. It’s very difficult to do but it can be done. And sure enough that’s what happened in Toms River.

KH: Toms River Chemical engaged in some really underhanded practices as they polluted the waterways there in New Jersey and they covered it up. But you went out in the book that even the legal limits for waste they were releasing wouldn’t be allowed now by EPA and it was a very different time. But is there a modern parallel?

DF: I think there certainly are plenty of modern parallels. Many of the things that Toms River Chemical did were legal at the time. Some things they did were not legal, and they were both civil and criminal prosecutions of the company. Of course it was a different time, and of course environmental laws were more lax than they are now. We know much more now about this relationship between chemical exposures and public health. I think it’s also quite relevant in places where regulation is still relatively lax. China is where the new Toms Rivers are, and many of the same things that happened in Toms River and are now happening in China. And then, finally, I think it’s quite relevant to this talking point among our current president and among many Republicans that environmental regulation is a drag on economic growth. Tom’s River shows what the consequences of that can be. The residents of Toms River turned a blind eye to what was happening in their town because they wanted to enjoy the consequences of growth. And in the long run, many of them came to regret it. They certainly regret it now. And they take a very different attitude in Toms River. There is also really good data showing that communities that have the best economic growth where unemployment is lowest also tend to have the broadest economic base. They are not dependent on manufacturing. And certainly Pittsburgh is a fantastic example of that. Pittsburgh has done an absolutely great job of diversifying its economy. It’s really kind of a shining example of what it means to have a diverse economic base and how much more resilient communities are if they are able to expand beyond manufacturing.

KH: What’s Toms River like now?

DF: It is a very nice town despite what you might think if you read my book. People in Toms River are so attuned to environmental health in part because of everything they went through associated with the cancer cluster. Citizens are quite well informed. And the water company and businesses in town are really quite scrupulous about making sure that they follow environmental rules. So there is no reason that anyone should feel concerned about living in Toms River. The important thing is to learn the lessons of what happened in Toms River and to apply those lessons to communities across the country and around the world.

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Allegheny Front