AWRA Water Blog

Book Review: ‘Toms River’ (or ‘Cadillac Contamination’ Meets ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’)

Disclosure Notice: I purchased my copy of the book. Friend and colleague Todd Jarvis, who suggested I read it and initially lent me his copy, dubbed it Cadillac Contamination. One might also call it An Uncivil Action. The map of Toms River is from the New York Times

Cutting to the Chase

Read it! Toms River by Dan Fagin, a journalism professor at NYU who directs the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP), sets a new standard for environmental reporting. Simple as that. Details? Read on, my children.


Coal tar. Even the name sounds dirty. It’s the gooey brown liquid that remains after DanSmilingCropped-283x300
coal is burned at high temperature in the absence of oxygen.  As author and master raconteur Dan Fagin notes, it was arguably the first major industrial waste. And a couple of hundred years ago people were trying to find uses for it. Did they ever.

Personal Encounter

I first knowingly (forgetting aspirin, shampoo, dyed clothes, medicines, adhesives, etc.) encountered coal tar in the form of coal tar epoxy or CTE, a substance used as a plug in the stemming of boreholes used to emplace thermonuclear devices (not ‘bombs’, if you please; they are called ‘bombs’ only when they fall from the sky) for underground testing. I had no idea that crappy coal tar had such an important societal use – preventing underground thermonuclear explosions from venting radionuclides to the atmosphere. Little did I know.

History LessonBook

Fagin starts by taking us back a few hundred years or so. After a brief history of of Toms River, he introduces us to coal tar and those who first tried to find a use for it. Leave it to a tinkering teenager.

In an attempt to synthesize the malaria medicine quinine from coal tar components, young (18) British chemistry student William Perkin discovered a substance at the bottom of his test tube that, when treated with alcohol, imparted a brilliant blue color to his cleaning cloth. No quinine, but Perkin knew he was onto something: the makings of the modern dye industry.

An aside – what happened to dyes? Didn’t the Romans, Phoenicians and others have beautifully-dyed garments? Sure they did. Fagin explains what happened.

Perkin’s work opened the door. By isolating coal tar’s components, chemists isolated a number of organic compounds. Some of these – aniline, especially – produced bright colors that transferred easily and permanently to fabrics. No more dull greys and browns, mind you, but bright reds, yellows, purples, blues, etc. Firms, initially mainly German and Swiss (Ciba-Geigy, BASF, Bayer, Agfa and others) – prospered over the next 100-150 years producing not only dyes but many other chemicals – paints, aspirin, solvents, resins, cosmetics, etc. from coal tar. Yes, better living through chemistry was born in Perkin’s test tube.

Going Down the Shore

Fast forward to Toms River, NJ, a town ‘down the shore’ as New Jerseyans are wont to 0319-sci-SCIBOOKS-articleInline-v2say. It’s about 55 miles east of Philadelphia ad 70 miles south of New York City. In 1952 the chemical company Ciba (later Ciba-Geigy after a merger) located a large factory complex on a two-square mile parcel on the outskirts of town. The hamlet was elated to have the plant, as it meant lots of good-paying jobs, prosperity and all that other stuff public officials, merchants, and community boosters crave.

What they didn’t know at the time was that their air, beloved river, aquifer, soil, and nearshore saltwater would be polluted with all sorts of coal tar derivatives. Water would taste funny and look odd. Worst of all,  friends, neighbors and children would be afflicted with cancer. Ah, but when the Toms River turned a color, it was a really pretty color.

Most people looked the other way and the good folks at the plant denied any that the pollution was harmful. No, the groundwater was not contaminated. Besides, if it were, it was caused by the other company’s (Union Carbide) drums at a leaking landfill.

You know the drill. Some mothers and cancer ward nurses get curious about all the Toms River children showing up in the cancer wards of hospitals. Who listens to them? Doctors? The NJDEP? A cancer cluster in Toms River? What exactly is a cancer cluster? It’s not as straightforward as one might think. Maybe someone knows someone who has a sister who works for EPA who knows….Personal connections loom large.


So Fagin tells us another story about industrial pollution and dying children? As one politician might say, ‘Stuff happens.’ Besides, didn’t Jonathan Harr do this with Woburn, MA, and TCE in A Civil Action? Heck, that was a made into a movie with John Travolta!

But Fagin did not win a Pulitzer Prize for Toms River by rehashing the SOS. Yes, he tells the Toms River story: the chemicals, the company, the cancer, and most of all, the people. But his book does for occupational health and environmental epidemiology what Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert did for Western US water: it put those topics on the map.

Throughout the book, as Fagin spins his tale about Toms River, he periodically indulges in sections about the historical development of cancer studies, environmental epidemiology, and toxicology. He talks about waste management and public health. It’s a history lesson  on the development of those fields and the personalities (believe me, there are some real characters) involved. His approach is not only educational but also results in a book that tells multiple, interrelated stories.

So you’re probably thinking that Fagin’s book is like one of the time-travel shows where you go back and forth in time so often that you get terribly confused. What is the story? Which timeline am I on? That’s where Fagin’s skill as a writer and communicator comes to the fore. His approach enhances the narrative and provides extraordinary context. It’s a brilliant literary tool. It’s not original, but I don’t recall ever seeing it in a book in this genre – or done so seamlessly.

One bonus: for fans of A Civil ActionJan Schlichtmann, the flamboyant, combative attorney played by John Travolta in the film, returns from the dead, but with a new gig that proves instrumental in negotiations. No, it’s not an AK-47.

My Takeaways

1) Personal connections count; when regulators drop the ball or can’t find it, these count.

2) It’s unlikely that we’ll see many technical contamination studies as detailed and expensive as this one. Who’s going to pay? But perhaps this book will have an effect on the need for such studies.

3) This book has changed the ways I look and think about things. When I see a brightly-colored fabric, I often think of children with cancer in Toms River and elsewhere and wonder if my garments contributed to some child’s agonizing death. I can’t get Michael Gillick out of my mind.

4) Many plants like the Toms River one have relocated to Asia. The Asian workers have less protection than Americans do. Good luck!

5) Thank heavens for a free press and investigative reporters. The latter are waning, although maybe Dan Fagin’s SHERP can stanch the decline.

6) Incredible documentation and indexing. What a source!

7) New Yorkers rarely feel any compassion towards New Jersey. Hey, c’mon, the entire state’s a landfill!  That’s changed.

Read it!

“A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large that even an epidemiological study can detect it.” – David Ozonoff, Boston University (page 442 of Toms River.) 

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