An oncologist on the human cost to treating cancer and why she believes we need to re-think how to fight the disease.
Before the mid-20th century, the most exciting thing to happen in Toms River, N.J., was the American Revolution. Before the war, the coastal village’s inlet was a popular haven for small-time pirates. But the arrival of the chemical industry ushered in a decades-long drama, culminating in one of the largest legal settlements in the history of toxic dumping. Toms River became home to a cluster of childhood cancers linked to local air and water pollution. Journalist Dan Fagin spent five years uncovering an account of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight. He says the town’s story is a cautionary tale for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to China. For this month’s Environmental Outlook, Diane and Fagin discuss the story of Toms River.
- Dan Fagin Associate professor of journalism and director of Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” by Dan Fagin. Copyright 2013 by Dan Fagin. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. For decades, chemical companies dumped toxic waste in Toms River, N.J. It eventually became clear the town's poisoned water was killing people especially children. What was less clear, exactly who was to blame. With this month's environmental outlook, Dan Fagin tells the story of the town in his new book "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." Dan Fagin joins me in the studio.
MS. DIANE REHMYou're welcome to be part of the program. Call us on 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, Dan, good to have you here.
MR. DAN FAGINThank you very much, Diane, good morning.
REHMDan, talk about how you first got interested in this story. I know that you've had years of experience as an environmental writer at Newsday. You're a professor of journalism at New York University. What attracted you to the Toms River story?
FAGINWell, as you said, I was a reporter at Newsday for many years and I did most of my work on Long Island. And Long Island, cancer and the environment was a very big issue, still is a big issue, but it was an especially big issue in the 1990s when I was working at Newsday so I had written a lot about it and I was very interested in the topic and I knew how powerful and important the issue is to individual people, to regular folks. So when I heard about Toms River, which the Toms River issue really became, you know, exploded nationally in 1996, I was immediately interested in it and I wrote some stories about it.
FAGINAnd at the time, I remember thinking, wow, this is an amazing saga. It's really important and it really should be a book someday. And I came back and wrote a few more stories over the years, including when the epidemiological study was done and that made me think even more strongly that this was something that really should be written about.
FAGINSo when I finally had the chance to write a book, when I went to NYU, I thought about Toms River.
REHMTake us back to 1953 when the chemical company first came to Toms River. Talk about what the town looked like back then.
FAGINWell, it was a very isolated place. At the time, there was no Garden State Parkway so your listeners from New Jersey know how important that turnpike and the parkway were to opening up central and southern New Jersey. It was really just pine bearings and beach and there was not a lot going on down there. The biggest industry was chicken farming and it was not a very lucrative industry, as you might imagine, and it was already sort of fading as the refrigerator truck picked up and allowed long-distance importing of poultry.
FAGINSo it was not a happy place economically. And so when Ciba came to town...
FAGINCiba, the very large Swiss chemical company, it no longer exists. It has been spun-off and bought out and all kinds of corporate machinations.
REHMBut we still have Ciba-Geigy?
FAGINNo actually, Ciba-Geigy as a corporation, most of Ciba is now owned by BASF...
FAGIN...the very large -- the largest chemical company in the world. So Ciba came to Toms River and the folks in Toms River were thrilled to have them because the economy was not good and the folks at Ciba promised lots of jobs and prosperity.
REHMAnd what were they producing?
FAGINThey were -- their most important product, especially in the early years, were dyes, vat dyes.
REHMWhat kind of dyes?
FAGINWell, they're called vat dyes, not because they're made in vats, but it's a chemical term. It means they're very long-lasting, durable dyes. And the thing about vat dye manufacture, anthraquinone dye manufacture, is that it generates a massive amount of liquid waste, much more waste than actual dye product.
REHMSo let me understand this. Vat dye is used to dye fabrics, for example, to make very vivid colors so they don't fade. And then you've got the waste coming from these vat dyes?
FAGINThat's right, from the manufacturing process. It generates a tremendous amount of waste water. And this was a very old problem. The chemical industry itself, its first important products, its original product in the synthetic chemical industry was dyes and I tell that story in the book starting in the 1850s and 1860s.
FAGINAnd the waste problem is just as old. We've got examples of ground contamination and human health issues and workers getting cancer. It's a very old story and Ciba, the Swiss chemical company, had had environmental issues and health issues wherever it had gone, first in Europe, in Basel originally, other places in Europe, then in the United States in Cincinnati where they had a big facility and then in Toms River when they came in the 1950s.
REHMSo what were they doing with the waste product? Was it solid waste or was it chemical waste?
FAGINWell, chemical waste could be either solid or liquid...
FAGIN...but in the case of Ciba, the major waste product with dye manufacture is liquid waste.
FAGINBut there's also solid waste. And later, the plant expanded into other kinds of chemical manufacture, especially starting in the 1960s so they did it all. They had liquid waste that they put into the ground or dumped into the river often in somewhat treated, semi-treated and also somewhat diluted with regular water, but it was still a huge problem. And then the solid waste they would bury and then other stuff they would burn.
REHMI see. Okay, so let's talk about the good side of what Ciba was doing. How many jobs did they bring to Toms River?
FAGINWell, they brought a lot of jobs, over 1,000 at peak and they were good jobs. You know, everybody that I spoke to in the course of doing this book told me that Ciba was absolutely the place to work, but back then it was called Toms River Chemical.
FAGINBut that the plant was absolutely the place to be. For a blue-collar person who didn't necessarily have a college education, there was nothing like it in the whole county. And of course, there were white-collar jobs too for engineers.
REHMOkay, who gets into this to complicate this story? How does Ciba contract with others to take care of this waste product?
FAGINRight, it starts to get complicated. Ciba actually would take care of its own waste largely and they were a very large concern and so they had their own engineers and they certainly weren't experts in waste disposal. No one really was back then.
FAGINBut they would do it themselves. They dug large holding ponds, but most of those ponds were unlined and the soil was sandy so you know what happens, Diane, when you drop liquid in sand, it disappears, out of sight, out of mind. But of course, in the case of Toms River, the ground water flow direction went right to the river and then it entered the river.
FAGINSome of it entered the river, some of it in the form of ground water plumes entered surrounding neighborhoods and in both ways, it eventually wound up -- dye waste in the 1960s wound up in the water supply.
REHMSo the company, was it in consultation with the Toms River town fathers about what to do with this waste? In other words, were they trying to hide what they were doing or were they doing it openly?
FAGINWell, they weren't exactly doing it openly, but it's important to point out that what they were doing was largely legal.
FAGINYeah, it was. But they certainly didn't broadcast what they were doing. Their key collaborator was the water company, the Toms River water company, which at that time, in part because of Ciba and in part because of the opening of the Garden State Parkway, the town started growing like crazy.
FAGINIt grew so fast and the water company had a real problem. They could not keep up with demand. They had a really hard time keeping up with demand. So the last thing they wanted to do was to shut down or add major expense to their water supply problems. So the water company really was a collaborator in a way that really did not protect the public as they should have.
REHMAnd what about -- you talk about an independent trucker from Union Carbide Corporation who enters the picture. What role does he play?
FAGINRight, he's quite a character. His name is Nick Fernicola, was Nick Fernicola, and his father was in the waste barrel business in Newark and it was a very dirty job, but someone had to do it, I guess. And Nick sort of bounced around doing various jobs and he heard. He was never a Union Carbide employee.
FAGINHe was a contractor to Union Carbide. And he was hanging around a bar one night in Toms River and he heard from some guys who worked at the local landfill that Union Carbide needed somebody to get rid of several thousand barrels of waste. And Nick thought, hey, I can do that, especially because I've got some contacts here.
FAGINSo he did. He made an arrangement with Union Carbide. Union Carbide was not very rigorous at all in checking Nick out. The only thing they did was follow him down one time and the results, well, we can get into that soon, but the results were tragic.
REHMDan Fagin, his new book is titled "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." We're going to open the phones shortly, stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Dan Fagin is here. He has 15 years experience as an environmental writer at Newsday. He's currently professor of journalism at New York University and has just written a new book titled "Tom's River: A Story of Science and Salvation." It's a story of chemical waste dumping. And there are many characters involved, one who happened to own or work as a contractor for Union Carbide who decided he could take on this problem of dumping waste material. How'd he do that, Dan?
FAGINWell, what he did is he had a truck and he hired a couple guys and he told Union Carbine, hey I'll take care of this. I got some friends down in Ocean County. I'm going to take it to the town landfill and you can count on me. Don't worry about it. And he did take it to the town landfill for a while. He did it apparently by paying bribes to folks at the town landfill. He was never completely explicit about that but it seems likely that that's what happened.
REHMBribes because the kinds of waste he was dumping were not supposed to be there.
FAGINRight. This was hazardous waste, hazardous chemical waste and the town landfill was not supposed to accept it. And he did that for a little while but they kept asking him for higher and higher bribes. Plus there were problems at the town landfill. There was an explosion at one point. So Nick Fernicola started to look around for another place. And he had heard about a little egg farm, friend of a friend owned this egg farm. And, as I said, the egg business was in severe decline in Ocean County at that time.
FAGINAnd so Nick cut a deal with the owners of this egg farm. He said he would pay them, I think it's 40 bucks a month -- although he never actually paid them -- to use the back two acres of this egg farm. He said, I'm just going to store my barrels back there. And of course that's not what he did at all. He started dumping. And sometimes he just dumped -- he would just toss the barrel -- he and his workers would just toss the barrels off the back of a truck. And of course they were already -- the barrels -- the drums were already in bad shape. And when they would hit the ground they would open up and leak.
FAGINAnd at first Nick would -- he had a bulldozer and he would dig some shallow ditches, but none of it made any difference, Diane, because the soil was sandy. And anything you dumped there immediately entered the groundwater aquifer. And the direction of groundwater flow ran directly toward the most important well field in Toms River.
REHMAnd these two egg farmers totally clueless.
FAGINYeah, there's some dispute about how much they knew but certainly after a few months of this, the owner of the egg farm, Sam Reich (sp?) woke up, realized what was happening, called the police, called the authorities and they did put a stop to it. But in the meantime, thousands of barrels were dumped and the people...
FAGIN...of Toms River lived with the consequences for the next 30 years.
REHMAll right. So how did the issue of the dumping become really widespread, well known and have its impact on Toms River?
FAGINWell, although the '70s and '80s this was an issue in Toms River. There was sort of a gradual developing of environmental awareness. At one point Green Peace got involved in the 1980s and tried to shut down the chemical plant, or at least shut down a waste pipeline that ran into the ocean. For a while Ciba shifted from dumping into the river to dumping into the ocean. And there was sort of a -- the same kind of theory. Well, the more we dilute the solution to pollution is dilution. I'm sure you've heard that. Of course it largely isn't a solution.
FAGINSo it became a building controversy and people were upset about the chemical plant and also about the illegal dumping at the egg farm. The other thing that happened is that people started to look around and say, gee there's a lot of kids with cancer in this community.
FAGINChildren. Many -- there seems like an unusual number of children with cancer in this community.
REHMAnd one of those is Michael Gillick.
FAGINMichael's mother, Linda Gillick, was -- there were many people in this story that played crucial roles in propelling this thing forward and eventually getting some semblance of the truth out about what really happened in Toms River. But Michael's mother Linda is one of the absolute most important. And she began starting in the 1980s because her son Michael was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at three months old, a very difficult cancer of the nervous system.
FAGINAnd it was quite tragic and the doctors had told the Gillicks that they didn't think Michael would live to his first birthday, or at least he had at best a 50/50 chance. Well, Michael defied the odds. He's still alive today. He's 34 years old now and quite an amazing person. But Linda began to notice -- Linda Gillick began to notice that whenever she went to the hospital she would see a lot of children from the Toms River area. And she wasn't the only one who noticed that.
REHMDo you want to read for us from the book?
FAGINSure. This is a section in which I'm talking about Michael. And I'm talking about how long he had been waiting for real answers to come out. And one of the really key characteristics of the Toms River story is they took a heck of a long time for people to do the right thing and for some version of the truth to come out. So this is about this waiting process.
FAGINMichael had been waiting for a very long time and he was willing to keep waiting. In bleak hospital wards as far away as New York City and Philadelphia, he and his mother had met dozens of other young people from Toms River with cancer, far too many to be a coincidence, he was certain. Many of those friends were gone now, gone forever but Michael was still here waiting.
FAGINHe had sat through hundred of committee meetings and press conferences and strategy sessions in lawyers' offices. He had waited for the results of scientific investigations that seemed to drag on forever, including the big one, the one that was supposed to prove that he and his mother were wrong, that they were just being emotional, hysterical. The so-called experts had gotten a surprise then, hadn't they?
FAGINMichael and Linda Gillick had started out knowing nothing. And now more than 30 years later they knew almost everything, along with many other people, some of whom they had never even met. The Gillicks had helped to uncover the secret history of Toms River, a dark chronicle of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect.
FAGINThey had fought the fears and dilutions of their own neighbors and they had been vindicated. Now Michael felt he was closer than ever to achieving his final goal. It was just a matter of biding his time and then the whole truth would come out at last. He could wait a little longer for that.
REHMIt's interesting, Dan, because you write that there was actually a nurse who started to see the connections between these -- or among these young kids in the hospital. Talk about her.
FAGINRight. Her name is Lisa Boornazian and she was a nurse at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in the early 1990s. And she noticed that there -- as Linda Gillick and other folks in Toms River had noticed, she noticed that there seemed to be a lot of children going to CHOP as that hospital is called, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia from the Toms River area. And that's a renowned hospital. It received patients from all over the region and really all over the world.
FAGINSo Lisa thought it was strange that so many patients seemed to be coming from Toms River. She worked in the pediatric oncology ward so she saw children with cancer. And it bothered her, especially because, you know, when you're a nurse you really get to know the patients and their families in a way that the doctors really don't. And so she brought her concerns up to the physicians and the physicians said, you know, don't worry about it. It's just a coincidence. Don't worry about it. Don't ask too many questions. Just, you know, do your work.
REHMThat's what they told her.
FAGINWell, that's what they told her. They weren't -- you know, they weren't being...
FAGINYeah, it's hard to explain, but it's not that they were being somehow vindictive or putting her down. They were just saying, you know, don't worry about it.. Don't...
REHMWe've got enough problems.
REHMDon't get involved in this.
FAGINDon't get involved.
REHMBut she did get involved.
FAGINShe did get involved.
FAGINHer sister-in-law happened to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. And she talked to her sister-in-law about it and her sister-in-law happened to know who to call, the very obscure federal agency called the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ATSDR. And the person on the other end of the line remarkably agreed to do this investigation. And it was because Lisa Boornazian spoke up. She talked to her sister-in-law because her sister-in-law made the call...
FAGIN...that the ball finally got rolling in a way that the activists in Toms River had really been unable to engage the authorities.
REHMThat's very interesting. And so a study of the area finally gets done. And how many people are involved in this study?
FAGINWell, it's complicated of course. Anything to do with epidemiology, which is the study of patterns of disease, gets very complicated. Ultimately the cluster, which is a word that's used for an incidence higher than expected, you know, in a particular place or a particular time period, was ultimately defined to include somewhere around 100 children. But that's not really the right number to use because as in everything else in Toms River so much depended on luck. And it depended on the individual decisions of key people and who they decided to include or exclude.
FAGINYou know, I always say that there's nothing inevitable about this story coming out. It came out only because at key moments people decided to do more than the minimum. You know, they decided to really look out for their community.
REHMAnd what it does suggest is that there could be lots of other places, not only in this country but elsewhere, where these kinds of clusters may exist, but we just don't know about them.
FAGINYeah, I think that's true. I say in the book that there are really three possibilities that, you know, Tom's River could be a mirage. It could be just totally due to chance that this accidence in childhood cancer cases existed. I tell you why I don't think that's the case. Because it formed a series of patterns and it had what scientists call a dose response curve, which means the more exposure that a particular part of town or occurred in a particular period of years, the higher the cancer rates were. So there was a logic to it.
FAGINSo I don't feel that it was a mirage. It could be a fluke, Diane, which means that maybe there's really no other place like Toms River or Wilburn Massachusetts, the site of a civil action. Maybe the pollution was just so horrendous in those two places that it's the only place where this could happen. I've been an environmental writer for 25 years. I don't think that's the case. So that leaves one other possibility.
REHMAnd that is?
FAGINAnd that is that there are many such clusters and we're just not seeing them.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So after this study was completed showing a higher than average incidence of cancer among children, did the feds actually get involved? Did state government get involved? Did, you know, the EPA and everybody else say, hey wait a minute?
FAGINThey did. They did. And it was a multistep process. I mean, the first step is to identify the cluster to show, okay it really is unlikely to be due to chance that we have all this -- that we have this unusual number of cancers. The even harder part is to figure out what the likely cause might be. And epidemiology can never tell you what a true cause is with certainty, but they can tell you what's likely. And what's fascinating about the Toms River study is that they determined that pollution was indeed a likely cause, specifically for leukemia among girls.
FAGINSo once that happened and there was also a legal settlement involving 69 children and/or their families, Toms River really became a high priority place for environmental cleanup. And almost all of the environmental threats have been removed, taken care of.
REHMNow it sounds to me as though you're talking also about the parallels that exist or existed between Toms River and Woburn, Massachusetts.
FAGINYeah, there are some interesting parallels certainly. And your listeners will be familiar with Woburn, I'm sure, from either the book or the movie "A Civil Action." And...
FAGINYeah, Love Canal's a little bit different. We don't -- the evidence of human harm is a little murkier in Love Canal than it is in Woburn and Toms River. But there are certainly lots of examples of places where there was horrendous pollution and at least some evidence of impact on human health. And that's really the great concern. I mean, I look at what's happening now in China in particular and also India.
FAGINYou know, we're seeing the same kind of beginnings of community uprising in China that we saw in Toms River, and before Toms River in Cincinnati, and before Cincinnati in Basel, Switzerland and other places. I just -- I really -- it's tragic really when we continue to repeat our mistakes.
REHMAnd it's tragic especially because somehow through our own lifestyle we're all in some small way contributing to the problem.
FAGINWell, that's certainly true. That is certainly true. You know, we live in a era of multinational corporations and free trade. And we get our blue jeans from China. And those jeans, some of them anyway, are dyed in China in industrial sites in factories that are not adhering to the same standards that factories would have to adhere to in the United States. And that's of great concern.
REHM"Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." We'll get to the salvation part before the end of the program. Dan Fagin is the author. He's been an environmental writer at Newsday. He's professor of journalism at New York University.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones, as I talk with Dan Fagin. He's written a fascinating story. It's titled, "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." At times it sounds like science fiction, but everything in the book happened. Let's go to Marco Island, Fla. Linda, you're on the air.
LINDAHi, Diane. I lived in the Jersey Shore in a coastal town where the Ciba-Geigy had an outflow pipe directly from the factory in Toms River, flowing the effluent right into the ocean. The town never made anyone that lived in the area aware of this. And there was a gentleman called Frank Livelli--
LINDA--that started Save Our Ocean. I'm sure that Mr. Fagin is aware of him.
FAGINAbsolutely. He's in the book.
LINDAYeah, I'm going to get the book. And his efforts, along with other people, help to close and had them pull out that pipeline.
FAGINYeah, that's exactly what happened. And it's quite a dramatic story. It occurred in the 1980s. And what's interesting about it, it was a combination of local activists, including Frank Livelli, also some folks in Toms River and outsiders from Greenpeace. They came together and they did something remarkable. But that was not the end of the story because the polluted groundwater continued to be there and the factory continued to work for a while longer. And there's still the problem with the illegal dumping at the chicken farm. And that continued on into the '90s.
LINDAAs a matter of fact, I tried to get records from around the area. There's a hot spot where they buried the barrels of effluent and children were getting cancer. The records were sealed. Some of the families were paid, you know, paid for the loss of their children, but we couldn't get access to the court records.
REHMAnd you did.
FAGINYeah, it's a critical problem. You know, corporations say they're sorry by paying money. They don't say they're sorry explicitly by saying, we erred, here's what we did and here's the evidence. So they're not in the habit of making it easier for other people to build similar cases against them. So all of these settlements are sealed, including the one involving the Toms Rivers families. There's a quirk in New Jersey law that if a settlement involves a person under 18 there's a special hearing that needs to take place before a judge, and that is public.
FAGINSo for that reason and also for some other reasons, we do have a pretty good idea of the overall size of that settlement. It was somewhere around $30 million, $35 million.
FAGINWhich meant that for families, depending on the degree of illness and the kind of cancer that the child had, they got somewhere between around $100,000 and a little more than $500,000 per family.
REHMDid most of these children die?
FAGINNo. Most of them did not die. I don't recall the number off the top of my head, but within the settlement there were 69 children and I believe less than 20 of them had died.
REHMAll right. Let's go to New Burn, N.C. Hi, Peggy.
PEGGYHi, it's so wonderful that you're doing this show.
PEGGYMy sister died several years ago of ovarian cancer. She lived in northern New Jersey. She lived there all her life. And I found out, after her death, that northern New Jersey, I think it's Union, Suffolk and definitely Bergen County have four times the rate of ovarian cancer of any other place in the country.
FAGINThat seems really high to me, but I mean I can't dispute it. I don't know.
REHMMight be another investigation for you, Dan.
FAGINIt might be. The thing that is hard for people to understand, it's hard for me to understand, but it's true, is that we will never know what caused a particular person's illness. Epidemiology can't help us with that. What they can do is give us a sense of how likely it is that some environmental exposure caused the illness. And I do think that if you're right about that--that seems quite high to me, but if you're right about those stats I do think that that's exactly the kind of thing that deserves being looked into.
FAGINAnd one of my grave concerns is that the public health system in this country, it's reactive. It's not proactive. You know, Diane, we have this amazing ability, most of it thanks to Homeland Security, as we call it, to look for patterns in massive amounts of data. And we use this when we're hunting for terrorists or, you know, we have tremendous ability to comb through data, but we don't use it in public health. We really don't. And I think that that's tragic. I really do.
REHMPeggy, thanks for your call. Let's go now to Cleveland, Ohio. George, you're on the air.
GEORGEThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
GEORGEAnd I'm sitting here totally bone-chilled listening to your guest because I live in a county that has 18 injection wells from fracking. We've been told the same stuff, that it's legal, that it's going to help the economy tremendously, it's good for jobs. They subcontract out to small truckers. The getting rid of all the fracking waste that's highly toxic, that each well contains 25,000 gallons of chemicals that are known carcinogens, and when I listen about Toms River I'm afraid that we're just setting this up all over again. And I wonder what your guest thinks about that.
FAGINWell, I certainly am concerned about the boom in fracking and hydrofracturing gas. I'm concerned about it for many reasons. I do think that the health concerns are legitimate and we definitely need tighter regulation. I'm also worried because in the long run this is not what we need to be doing. You know, we need to figure out post-carbon energy or we're going to wind up with a world that we just can't live in.
REHMSo, you know, I want to go back to your prior sentence. You talked about the fact that we wait until after tragedy occurs before we look carefully. And for all the fracking that's gone on, we're not going to know for years about not only the environmental damage, but maybe the health consequences that are coming as a result of exactly what Michael (sic) talked about. We should be more proactive.
FAGINWe should. And, you know, that's why regulation, effective, efficient, smart regulation is so important. You know, somehow we've reached a point in this country where the word regulation is seen as a bad thing. And I just think that that's ridiculous. Some regulations are silly, but many are very sensible. And fracking is a perfect example of a trend that is not going to go away any time soon, no matter, you know, what some of us would prefer. So what we need is to be smart and effective and aggressive in policing this industry.
REHMLet's go to Cindy, in Martinsburg, W.Va. Good morning to you.
CINDYGood morning. I'm calling because I experienced living out in the country in Berkeley County, West Virginia. An incident that turned into something that was prolonged and the EPA--even though I called them three times--would not do anything about it. They told me that they would have to put my name on a report as to why they would respond to my observances. And I was very uncomfortable with that. I was not a native to the county and I was alone a lot. And what happened was that my next door neighbor, who worked for the state highway department, would have access to equipment where he could dig.
CINDYAnd when I first moved there the water was wonderful. There was no filtration system whatsoever. It was well water. And the longer we were there--and when we saw this digging and burying going on, the water tasted worse. I ended up leaving that area after about seven years. And what happened was when I went back the water was awful. It was just undrinkable, but I had told the EPA three different times. What they told me was that they had to have some sort of observance from above, you know, safe from an airplane to witness it. And I found it very scary to talk to my next door neighbors about it.
FAGINWell, that's an interesting situation and it's certainly not at all unusual. I mean, the thing about ground water is we don't see it, right. And in this country, you know, we have a tradition that, you know, you basically can do what you want on your own land. Of course that's not really true, there are many restrictions, there's zoning, etcetera. But especially in rural areas, that's a real problem. And especially when people get their water from backyard wells, as opposed to municipal systems. It's a critical problem.
REHMHere's an email from Barbara, in South Bend, Ind. saying, "I grew up in Woburn, Mass. about two blocks from W.R. Grace, four blocks from the tannery owned by Beatrice foods, the two culprits in that case. I know about the cluster of leukemia cases identified in children in Woburn, but I wonder if any follow-up study has been done on the adults, both there and in Toms River. I know several people who lived in my neighborhood and who were adults in the '50s and '60s, died of rare cancers, including my mother and dad."
FAGINI'm not certain what the answer is in Woburn. I'm not aware of any long-term follow-up for adults in Woburn, and there has been none in Toms River. You know, we know about Woburn and Toms River, really for very fluky reasons, because there happened to be people who, you know, refused to keep quiet and thought something was going on and raised cane about it. So these are the ones that we know about. And so then when we have relatives there or we know someone who died we instantly assume, okay, well, it must have been the environment. We don't know. And, you know, more disturbingly, we have no idea how many other places there are just like it.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Here's an email from Peter in Tarrytown, N.Y. "Considering what happened in Switzerland with Ciba, did Ciba think their practices were adequate and safe or did they not care or some combination of both? Is there any evidence of similar behavior by other corporations today doing similar things?"
FAGINWell, you know, I'm a journalist and I'm also a journalism professor. And one of the things I teach my students is that you can't assume that you understand the motivations of other people. And so I'm going to try to be careful. I tried to be careful in this book and I'll be careful now in sort of saying, I'm going to tell you what the chemical industry knew and when it knew it. You know, to be fair, Ciba had a big legal dispute with its insurers over who would have to pay for the cleanup, hundreds of millions of dollars, the environmental cleanup at the plant.
FAGINAnd Ciba won that suit because the judge decreed that was Ciba was doing, what Ciba's waste handling practices were in the '50s and the '60s, which was the period that this litigation covered, were basically typical industry practices. So, you know--
REHMAnd they didn't have to be proven safe?
FAGINWell, nothing can ever be proven safe, but with retrospect, you know, looking back, we certainly know that the regulations should have been more aggressive.
REHMBut that's why I asked about Switzerland. Didn't they know from that experience in Switzerland?
FAGINYes. The answer is yes, they did know. And their response would be--I’m guessing--is that, well, we thought that we had improved our waste handling practices in Ohio. And then we improved them in Toms River. In both cases that was better than what we had been doing initially in Basle. So we thought that would take care of it. I mean, I think the bigger point is that this is why we have regulation. This is why we have public oversight.
REHMSo where is the salvation in the title of your book?
FAGINRight. Many people ask me about that because the book, you know, spoiler alert, it doesn't have a beautiful, neat, tied-up Hollywood ending. But what it does have is a form of resolution in which the residents of Toms River don't get the explicit answers that they're looking for, but they find out a hell of a lot. And what they learn, ultimately, is that their suspicions were justified. And that all the people that told them this is--
REHMDon't worry about it.
FAGINThere's nothing going on here, don't worry about it, well, they were wrong. Those people were wrong and the community members were right. So that's important. And the other salvation really comes in the form of the community itself, the air, the water, the soil, much of the risk has been removed. There's no particular reason to think that Toms River is any riskier place to live than any other place in the region.
REHMAnd what about Woburn?
FAGINSame thing with Woburn. The Woburn sites have been largely remediated and, in fact, I think there's reason to take some comfort in the fact, if you live in one of those places, because there's been so much publicity and so much attention, it's very unlikely that you're going to see the kind of really shoddy regulation and shoddy oversight that occurred in those places in the past.
REHMDan Fagin, he's professor of journalism at New York University and environmental writer at Newsday. His new book is titled, "Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation." Thanks so much for doing this story and for bringing it to our attention.
FAGINThanks very much, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
How dynamics have shifted for the 2020 Democratic presidential contenders ahead of Tuesday's debate.
NPR's Aarti Shahani tells the story of her family's migration to the U.S. She ended up at Harvard, while her father nearly got deported.
There's a showdown between the executive and legislative branches of government.