Science journalist Dan Fagin

A winner of both of America’s best-known science journalism prizes, Fagin recaps the story he tells in his new text, Toms River.

Dan Fagin is a science journalism professor at NYU and director of its masters-level Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program, one of the oldest and best-regarded science journalism training programs in the world. He previously spent two years at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and 15 years at Newsday, where he covered local and state politics before assuming the environment beat and was a principal member of two reporting teams that were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Co-author of 2002's Toxic Deception, the Oklahoma City native tells the story of a small town ravaged by industrial pollution in his new book, Toms River.


Tavis: 60 years ago, a Swiss dye manufacturer brought jobs and a modicum of prosperity to a small New Jersey town. But it also spewed chemical waste into the air, the soil and the water so toxic that the community was riddled with cancer.

The battle to close the dye plant, get restitution and protect the future of the community is now chronicled in a new text titled “Toms River” by Dan Fagin, an award-winning environment and science journalist. Dan Fagin, first of all, thank you for your work, and I’m honored to have you on this program.

Dan Fagin: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here, Tavis.

Tavis: Let me just sit back and let you top-line for me the Toms River story.

Fagin: Well, Toms River is a town in New Jersey. It’s about halfway between New York City and Philadelphia. And it was really too far away from either of those cities to really benefit from the prosperity. So as a result, times were tough in Toms River and in the early 1950s. The chemical industry came to town in 1953, opened a huge dye plant, one of the largest in the world.

And at the time, the citizens of that community thought it was a wonderful thing. Those were good, middle class, blue collar jobs, the kind of job that you could buy a house if you were fortunate enough to get that kind of position there. So in the short run, things were looking really good in Toms River when the dye plant came to town.

Tavis: Dye plant comes to town, what happens?

Fagin: Well, the first thing that happened is that – I mean, there was a specific reason that Ciba, the Swiss company that ran that plant, chose Toms River. It was an isolated location. They knew they would be welcomed there and there was a lot of room to put down their waste.

When you make dyes, especially this kind of dye, you generate a lot more waste than you do actual dye. It’s just kind of crazy to actually think about it, but it’s true. So they started generating huge volumes of waste, solid and especially liquid, and they would pour that waste essentially down onto the ground or into the Toms River, which is more like a creek, to tell you the truth.

So it started to generate a lot of pollution and it contaminated water wells. The first wells that were contaminated were on the factory property itself, so they knew what they were doing very quickly because they fouled their own nest.

Tavis: They knew what they were doing quickly, but it oftentimes takes a while for these kinds of medical repercussions to show themselves.

Fagin: That’s really true. That’s one of the great frustrations about environmental health issues is that sometimes you have an immediate effect. You know, there’s acute poisoning or there’s a poison gas like in Bhopal, in India. But much more often, you have these chronic effects that take a very long time to show themselves and it’s very tough to tie the disease back to the original exposure, the cause.

And that’s why we have epidemiology, which is the study of the patterns of illness. But it’s really hard to draw those connections and my book is really about that very difficult, subtle but absolutely essential process of connecting those dots.

Tavis: To your point now about the subtle, difficult way to connect these dots and the kind of work it takes to make this happen, it raises a question reading your book as to ultimately who steps up to fight for these communities oftentimes impoverished when these kinds of atrocities are being leveled against them?

Fagin: Well, what I found, Tavis, from reporting on this for many, many years is that it’s often the community itself, that the impetus often has to come from the community itself, and that’s what happened in Toms River. Some of these families – there was a particular woman named Linda Gillick who was one of the early leaders. She noticed it looked like a lot of cancer in her community among children, including her own child. That really bothered her.

And the experts, the people at the State Health Department and others, said, “Listen, you don’t understand. This is complicated science. This is beyond you. Let us take care of it. There’s not a problem.” Well, she wouldn’t shut up. She’s not the kind of person who shuts up and she wasn’t the only one.

You know, there was also a nurse at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia named Lisa Boornazian. She saw a lot of cancer cases from Toms River going to Philadelphia, a wonderful hospital. That hospital gets patients from all over the world. Why were there so many from Toms River? Lisa wanted to know. The doctors told her, “You’re just a nurse. Do your job. Don’t worry about it.” But she didn’t feel that way. She spoke up.

So in both cases, people who are not experts, but people who were observant members of the community. They were communitarians who spoke up and eventually a kind of justice or at least knowledge came to Toms River.

Tavis: That’s a critical distinction, a knowledge and a kind of justice. Why that distinction?

Fagin: Well…

Tavis: I saw you catch yourself [laugh].

Fagin: Right. Well, justice to me means a fair recompense and I don’t know what recompense there could ever be for the loss of a child. I think there is nothing that could be done to, you know, appropriately compensate somebody who suffers that fate.

Justice, I guess, in this case came in the form of a legal settlement. It came in the form of information. It came in the form of a sort of vindication for these families who had been told over and over, “Listen, there’s nothing going on here, we’ve got it under control.”

Ultimately, a very sophisticated investigation found that there was indeed a cluster and found that, at least for certain kinds of cancers, it was quite likely that the reason there was a cluster of those cancers was because of pollution from both the factory and also an illegal dump site in a different part of town.

That almost never happens, Tavis [laugh]. It’s very difficult to draw that line like that, but that happened in this case. And I think that’s a really great lesson way beyond Toms River.

Tavis: What kind of partner has government been historically? By historically, I mean in the Toms River episode and in a more contemporary setting. What kind of partner is government in pushing back on what is typically corporate America who’s most often responsible for this?

Fagin: Well, I got to say that, you know, again, I’ve been writing about these issues for a long time, so I’m not naive. But I was still surprised as how, for decades, government agencies in New Jersey consistently took the side of the polluters. And that finally began to change once the communities started to raise hell and also once there was political shifts in America starting in the 80s and 90s.

But it took a really long time and eventually government became a force for good, a force for positive change, in Toms River. But it took a long time and the real impetus had to come from the community itself.

Tavis: You’ve been pretty vocal lately. I’ve been reading some other stuff that you’ve – some comments you had to make of late, and I’ll let you unpack it in your own words, about the – how might I put this – the turning of a blind eye too often by the media, not putting the kind of focus on these kinds of stories, on the issues of environmental justice that come to light in Toms River.

Fagin: That’s true, Tavis. I mean, I’m a member of the media myself so, in a way, I’m criticizing myself and my friends. But my friends who are environmental journalists generally agree we see what has been really a critical rollback of environmental coverage and we’re very distressed about it.

I belong to a group called The Society of Environmental Journalists. It’s a great group, but the people who work in that group are increasingly stressed about how to make a living because many of them, you know, used to work for newspapers, but don’t anymore because environmental coverage has been cut back. It’s really a chronic, critical problem.

I’m also a professor of journalism at NYU and I’m helping to create the next generation of science and environmental journalists and I worry about work. What will they be doing and will they reach their audiences? These stories are so important. They’re critical to the future of our world.

Tavis: Juxtapose for me your point of a moment ago the decreasing coverage that major newspapers and other media outlets, the decreasing coverage that they’re giving to environmental issues and environmental injustice, yet the turning up of the volume in society at large about sustainability, about global warming, about…you see my point?

Fagin: Yeah, I do.

Tavis: So how can the conversation be growing and the coverage be shrinking?

Fagin: Yeah. It is very strange, isn’t it? And I agree with you. The conversation is to an extent growing and that’s a good thing that we’re talking about climate change which is an epic issue that, you know, maybe one of the two or three most important issues we’ll confront over the next century.

That conversation is largely happening outside of journalism which is a concern for me because, when I see conversations happening outside of journalism, I worry about our people getting good quality information that helps them make decisions in a democracy.

If all they’re getting is marketing, you know, whether it’s marketing from an environmental group or marketing from an industry group, I really worry that they’re not gonna be able to make a decision at the voting booth and I’m concerned that that’s what’s happening now.

Tavis: When you say in your title, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” what say you as a journalist covering the stuff about the ongoing debate which seems so political to me, but the ongoing debate about the science of so many of these issues?

Fagin: Yeah. Well, people have a funny idea about science. They think that science is tantamount to magic that will give you the answer if only you know the right incantation to recite. That’s not what science is at all.

Science is a process and it’s the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it’s not perfect. It gives us a range, it narrows the choices that we have to make, but we still have to make good, ethical choices. Science can’t do it all for us. We have to be wise human beings and think carefully about the future.

Tavis: And finally, where is the, to your subtitle, the salvation in this Toms River story?

Fagin: It’s an imperfect form of salvation, but it is salvation in the sense that the community, Toms River now, the water and the soil, is reasonably clean. It’s certainly no reason to be concerned about living there now.

And for the families involved, after many decades of fighting, they at least know that their instincts were right, that there was a cancer cluster in Toms River and that, as best science can determine, it’s likely that at least some of those cancers were caused by pollution. That is a form of salvation, but it’s not perfect. Nothing will bring their children back.

Tavis: The book by Dan Fagin is called “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.” Again, I close where I began. Thank you for your work, and I’m honored to have had you on this program.

Fagin: Thanks a lot, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you, Dan. That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, goodnight from L.A., thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: June 4, 2013 at 8:44 pm