Health News Review

It is ironic that within a week after reading Dan Fagin’s book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” I saw a TV replay of the movie, “A Civil Action,” starring Jon Travolta, cast as Jan Schlichtmann, the lawyer who represented families in the Woburn, Massachusetts lawsuit brought by the families of children with cancer they blamed on companies dumping toxic waste.

The Woburn and Toms River stories are connected in several ways.  Schlichtmann became involved in a suit brought by Toms River, NJ families as well. Different town. Very similar links between industrial toxic waste and clusters of cancers.  As a cancer-cluster-researcher in Fagin’s book points out, “With so few residential cancer clusters fully investigated, no one should be surprised that just two scientifically credible studies – in Woburn and Toms River – have found a likely environmental cause.”

Neither story ends happily.

Until I read Fagin’s book, the only thing I knew about Toms River was my recollection of that town’s team winning the Little League World Series years ago.

But while some Toms River kids were winning baseball titles, others were dying.

Fagin’s book burns into your brain a powerful, painful picture that should not be forgotten. In his concluding chapter, he writes:

“So, what was it, really? Was the Toms River childhood cancer cluster a mirage, an aberration, or a warning? Was it a consequence of nothing but a stunningly bad run of luck, like rolling snake eyes six times in a row? Or was it the product of pollution so horrendous and governmental neglect so extreme that the combination has never been replicated anywhere but Woburn?  And what about the third possibility…that a public health catastrophe is an effect so strong that even an epidemiological study can detect it? Could it be that the only unique thing about the Toms River and Woburn clusters is that anyone managed to recognize them?”

The legacy of Toms River?

“It was hard to imagine a similar set of circumstances occurring elsewhere, and even harder to imagine that a government agency would ever again willingly embark on an investigative process that in Toms River took almost six years, cost well over $10 million, and embarrassed a boatload of public officials on the way to its deeply unsettling conclusion.  In that sense, lawyer Jan Schlichtmann’s bold prediction that the Toms River epidemiological studies and legal settlement would “impact public health and environmental policy-making for a very, very long time” has turned out to be correct, but not in the way he expected or wanted.  The chief legacy of Toms River instead has been to solidify governmental opposition to conducting any more Toms River-style investigations.  And because only governments have unimpeded access to cancer registry information (due to privacy concerns), if public agencies do not investigate clusters, then no one will.”

I’m rarely a can’t-put-this-down kind of book reader.  But I was with this book.  The narrative, the history, the epidemiology, the explanation of chemistry – it was a masterful work of journalism.

The New York Times book review called it “surely a new classic of science reporting.”

Fagin talked about the Toms River story in this video.

Websites such as Ocean of Love for Children With Cancer  and T.E.A.C.H. (Toxic Environment Affects Children’s Health) are evidence of how the story has not ended for the families of Toms River.

 

If you don’t recall “A Civil Action,” let this trailer refresh your memory.

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Comments

Richard Besser posted on August 19, 2013 at 3:29 pm

I just finished Toms River as well. I have spent every summer of my life at the Jersey shore in the Toms River area and never knew this history. Dan Fagin does a terrific job at explaining the complexity in trying to determine whether a cancer cluster actually exists and then in trying to determine its cause. Brilliant piece of scientific journalism.

Lynne Fox posted on August 26, 2013 at 1:00 pm

I spent summers on the Metedeconk River at the Jersey shore (one of the inlets of Barnegat Bay). It was well known that the river was sewage contaminated, we all had strep and ear infections that our mothers blamed on the river. But we never really thought about the more dangerous chemical waste that might be in the river! Thanks for reviewing this title, which I had not heard about and plan to pick up my library very soon!

Lynne M. Fox, Education Librarian, University of Colorado Health Sciences Library