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Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvationby Dan Fagin
2014 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction
Synopses & Reviews
The riveting true story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution, Toms River melds hard-hitting investigative reporting, a fascinating scientific detective story, and an unforgettable cast of characters into a sweeping narrative in the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
One of New Jersey’s seemingly innumerable quiet seaside towns, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.
In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.
A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, Toms River is a tale of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect, and of a few brave individuals who refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.
"Most people know Toms River, N.J., as one of the areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy. But Fagin, an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University, reveals an earlier, less conspicuous disaster in the region. In a well-documented exposé of toxic industrial plants, corporate greed, and government neglect, Fagin (Toxic Deception, coauthor) plays detective to reveal the excessive human cost of chemical manufacturing hubs in the Jersey pinelands. Fagin focuses his research on cancer hot spots and how they affect the development of local children, but he also delves deeper into the region's tragic history by tracing the arrival of chemical plants in the early 1950s and chronicling the massive contamination of waterways, soil, and air that followed shortly thereafter. Determined to reclaim their health and lives, the residents waged a long legal campaign, which resulted in a pioneering government study, the revelation of an extensive cancer zone, and a settlement of over million. A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essential reading. Map. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
“Fascinating...a gripping environmental thriller.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town's struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book.” Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe
“Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town. Along the way — as we meet chemists, businessmen, doctors, criminals, and outraged citizens — we see how Toms River is actually a microcosm of a world that has come to depend on chemicals without quite comprehending what they might do to our health.” Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex
“A thrilling journey through the twists and turns of cancer epidemiology, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin takes us on a breathtaking tour through a wide terrain of topics — cancer, the environment, carcinogenesis and prevention — yet manages to keep us engaged with deeply personal stories. He handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.” Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
“It’s high time a book did for epidemiology what Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into Thin Air did for mountain climbing: transform a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end. And such is the power of Dan Fagin’s Toms River, surely a new classic of science reporting...a sober story of probability and compromise, laid out with the care and precision that characterizes both good science and great journalism.” The New York Times
“Immaculate research...unstoppable reading....Fagin’s book may not endear him to Toms River’s real estate agents, but its exhaustive reporting and honest look at the cause, obstacles, and unraveling of a cancerous trail should be required environmental reading.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Fagin’s meticulously researched and compellingly recounted story of Toms River families struggling to find out what was causing the cancers that claimed their children belongs on the shelf with other environmental/medical mysteries. It’s every bit as important — and as well-written — as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The Star-Ledger
“Absorbing and thoughtful.” USA Today
“This hard-hitting account of cancer epidemiology in the New Jersey town of Toms River is a triumph.” Nature
“In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin’s compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development.” Mother Jones
“As Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks investigated the tragic impact that unethical scientific pursuits had on a family, Toms River unravels the careless environmental practices that damaged a community....Features jaw-dropping accounts of senseless waste-disposal practices set against the inspiring saga of the families who stood up to the enormous Toms River chemical plant. The fate of the town, we learn, revolves around the science that cost its residents so much.” Booklist
About the Author
Dan Fagin is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University. At Newsday, Fagin’s stories about cancer and the environment were awarded both of the leading science journalism prizes in the United States, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Association of Science Writers. He has twice been a lead member of reporting teams that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize.
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