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Chemical Troubles In Toms River

Damning portrayal of past chemical industry practices is also in-depth examination of a public health disaster

by Rudy M. Baum
May 6, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 18

Credit: Dan Fagin
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin, Random House, 2013, 560 pages, $28 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-553-80653-3)
Book cover of Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation
Credit: Dan Fagin
Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation, by Dan Fagin, Random House, 2013, 560 pages, $28 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-553-80653-3)

It’s no secret that until fairly recently the chemical industry’s waste-handling practices left a lot to be desired. The chemical industry wasn’t alone, of course. Since the dawn of civilization, humans have dealt with waste primarily by digging a hole and burying it or pouring it into the nearest body of flowing water. In far too many places in the world, they still do.

The chemical industry is unique, however, because it exists to create new, useful, and profitable molecules. Many of those molecules—pharmaceuticals, pesticides, dyes, polymers, a variety of specialty chemicals—are organic chemicals derived from hydrocarbon feedstocks. Their production has historically involved a lot of organic solvents and resulted in waste streams made up of spent solvent and a witches’ brew of often uncharacterized organic by-products. Many of the solvents and compounds in those waste streams were toxic, mutagenic, teratogenic, and/or carcinogenic.

"Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation” by veteran science and environmental journalist Dan Fagin examines the impact of actions by the chemical industry—burying waste, dumping it into a river, and sometimes just pouring it on the ground—on the citizens of Toms River, N.J., starting in the 1950s. Deeply and thoroughly researched, it’s a gripping, beautifully told, and thought-provoking account of a human tragedy. It also presents a fine history of a number of science and health-related topics that bear directly on the story that unfolds in the Toms River.

Fagin is a gifted storyteller. The narrative backbone of this book is the 60-year history of the relationship between the citizens of Toms River and two chemical companies, Ciba and Union Carbide. As the story opens in the early 1950s, Toms River is a sleepy little town on the eastern fringe of the Pine Barrens near the coast of central New Jersey. It is far from affluent, with tourism and egg farming its two major industries. The eponymous river that runs through the heart of the town is typical of the region: small, slow moving, and tea colored from the tannins picked up in its meander through the Pine Barrens.

The nature of Toms River begins to change when the Swiss chemical company Ciba buys a 1,350-acre tract of pine and oak forest just upstream from the town and builds a major vat dye manufacturing facility on the banks of the little river. Over the course of the next two decades, Ciba brings a new prosperity to Toms River and helps fuel an economic boom that makes the town one of the fastest-growing municipalities in the state. Ciba also brings a long record of extraordinary disregard for the environment to its Toms River facility, an attitude that was all too common at the time. Pollution from the Ciba facility and from a nearby dumpsite where more than 5,000 55-gal drums of waste from a Union Carbide plant were buried drives the human tragedy that is at the heart of the “Toms River” narrative.

In the 1980s and ’90s, a startlingly large number of children in Toms River were stricken with cancer, especially leukemia and tumors of the brain and nervous system. Eventually, some of the town’s citizens became suspicious that the cancer cluster among their town’s children might be linked to pollution from the Ciba plant. Drawing such a conclusion wasn’t all that difficult as effluent from the plant had turned Toms River into a stinking chemical cesspool and tainted wells from which the town drew its water.

Fagin is interested in telling more than just the story of chemical pollution and its toll on the town’s residents, however, which is what makes the book such a compelling read. Most of the 24 chapters begin and end with events that occurred over the course of nearly 60 years in the town. Embedded in most of those chapters is a segue into history that is highly relevant to the events unfolding in Toms River. In chapter one, Fagin provides a concise history of the dye industry, for example, starting with William H. Perkin’s discovery of the purple dye mauveine in 1856 and the subsequent rise of major chemical companies synthesizing dyes in Switzerland and Germany. Geigy, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa, BASF, and Ciba all came into existence producing aniline dyes.

Credit: C&EN
C&EN bought into Ciba’s false claims that effluent from its Toms River dyestuffs plant would be harmless to the environment.
Toms river page
Credit: C&EN
C&EN bought into Ciba’s false claims that effluent from its Toms River dyestuffs plant would be harmless to the environment.

With this nascent industry came horrendous pollution, Fagin points out. “This astonishingly profitable new industry generated far more toxic waste than useful product,” he writes, “and no one had any idea what was actually in that waste or how to get rid of it. This was still true a century later in Toms River, where Ciba and Geigy were still using the same crude disposal method Müller-Pack had selected back in 1860: Dumping untreated, unidentified waste into open pits and unlined lagoons on the factory property.” Johann Jakob Müller-Pack was a Geigy manager who formed his own company, leased a site from Geigy, and set about making aniline dyes on a “grand scale.”

In subsequent chapters, Fagin further chronicles the development of the chemical industry in Europe and the U.S. He also charts the evolution of human understanding of infectious disease, cancer and carcinogens, occupational health and safety, and the environmental movement. If this sounds ambitious, it is, but Fagin weaves a tight, compelling narrative that exerts an almost novelistic pull on the reader.

A number of important themes emerge over the course of the “Toms River” narrative. One is the tension between science and industry as it became clear that industrial pollution harms humans. In one of his historical diversions, Fagin discusses the work of Oxford-trained pathologist Ernest Laurence Kennaway and his search for specific carcinogenic components of coal tar. Kennaway’s work led to the discovery in 1932 of the first carcinogen, benzo[a]pyrene. “The significance of what Kennaway achieved,” Fagin writes, “went far beyond a particular molecule or class of chemicals, however. … Kennaway turned the search for cancer-causers into a methodical, fruitful science—one that would often be undertaken by teams of collaborating chemists, physicists, biologists, and physicians emulating Kennaway’s own team.”

Within a decade of Kennaway’s discovery, dozens of carcinogens would be identified, Fagin writes, and “those developments would also transform the social conditions in which environmental cancer research is conducted. Now that specific products of commerce—including the detritus of dye manufacturing—had been directly implicated as causes of deadly disease, the discoveries of Kennaway’s successors would no longer be greeted with acclamation. As governments took their first steps toward meaningful regulation of the chemical industry, science would become both a weapon and a target.”

Fagin is adept at explaining complex scientific, technological, and medical concepts. He devotes many pages throughout the book to the development of modern epidemiology, the statistical concepts that underpin it, and its limitations, for example. Three times over the course of three decades, health officials investigated the cases of childhood cancer in Toms River. Despite its obvious prevalence, only after the third assessment was Toms River declared a true cancer “cluster,” and even that was statistically a close call. Fagin is clearly dubious of the high standard statistics places on declaring an outbreak of cancer a true “cluster.” He quotes one epidemiologist as saying that “a good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large even an epidemiological study can detect it.”

The chemical industry, needless to say, comes off horribly in “Toms River.” In case after case in Toms River and elsewhere, profit is the only consideration taken into account by the industry. The well-being of workers, local residents, and the environment is almost never factored into business decisions. Ciba is the most egregious offender; Union Carbide doesn’t fare well either, though. The company was only too happy to turn its waste over to a shady operator who rented 2 acres on a farm near Toms River and dumped the 55-gal drums there. In fact, chemical companies throughout New Jersey were handing their waste over to haulers who deposited it improperly on farms and in municipal dumps.

Government doesn’t come across much better. Pollution, no matter how damaging, was the price of progress. Fagin writes: “State officials not only failed to enforce the terms of their own discharge permits (which banned ‘detectable odors,’ among many other ignored provisions), they actively advised Toms River Chemical on how to stymie its critics. … A senior state environmental official, Robert Shaw, gave voice to the state’s overall attitude in a frank newspaper interview in 1963: ‘If anyone believes that New Jersey will remain what it was years ago, whether in regard to population, open spaces or streams or any other environmental factor, he fails to appreciate what’s going on in New Jersey.’ ”

C&EN even makes its own sad little appearance in “Toms River.” Discussing Ciba’s plans to build its plant in Toms River, Fagin writes, “Some of the news articles in those early days included comments from company officials disparaging the quality of the natural river water. One even claimed that the corrosive acid in Ciba’s wastewater would make the river water taste better to fish and humans alike.” Reference 20 in that chapter is to a 1953 C&EN article entitled “Ciba Solves Water Pollution Danger at Toms River Dye Plant,” which can be read online in the C&EN Archives.

The one-page article is a glowing account of a waste treatment system that was never actually built, and it indeed says that “the water discharged into the Toms River will be a great deal more palatable for fish and humans than the river itself.” The article concludes: “The effluent is continuously sampled and carefully checked at all stages of its treatment. It is discharged clear, neutral, free of odors or sediment, and harmless to fish life.” Nothing could have been further from the truth.

“Toms River” is an important book, one that I think anyone associated with the chemistry enterprise would benefit from reading. It will irritate some readers who, I suspect, will argue that the unflattering portrait of the chemical industry that Fagin paints is unfair and that, in any case, the industry isn’t like that anymore. As to the portrait Fagin paints, his 54 pages of notes list an impressive array of sources, including many internal industry documents. As to the chemical industry having changed, it has, at least in North America and Europe. But those changes would not have occurred without the efforts of environmental activists and strict regulation by government bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. Critics of environmental regulation, who argue that regulation is somehow an infringement of individual liberty and an impediment to business success, should read “Toms River.” This is what the world looks like without environmental regulation, and it is ugly.

Rudy Baum is C&EN editor-at-large.


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