Despite this book’s emotionally neutral title, Toms River is at bottom a horror story of unregulated capitalism. A Ciba-owned chemical plant came to the coastal town of Toms River, New Jersey, in 1952 to make dyes through processes that used and discharged enormous quantities of water. This same company had been polluting the Ohio River in Cincinnati since the early 1920s, but its huge Toms River plant employed so many local people and contributed so many civic adornments to the community that it took years for the citizens to realize they had clasped a viper to their collective bosom.

First, the plant polluted the adjacent Toms River and the aquifers that supplied the town with its drinking water. Then, when these convenient dumping grounds became overloaded, Ciba constructed a pipeline through the town that enabled it to pump millions of gallons of daily waste water directly into the Atlantic Ocean. Smoke from its operations, which the plant tried to conceal by emitting it at night, persisted in fouling the town’s air.

So firm was Ciba’s economic grip on Toms River that local politicians—and even the city-owned water company—remained docile and compliant as the plant continued its environmental assaults. Whenever Ciba had the choice of either lessening its poisonous impact by installing expensive safety devices or ramping up its public relations pitches, it invariably chose the latter. To make matters worse, in 1971 Union Carbide began dumping barrels of toxic chemicals at a site near Toms River, further polluting the groundwater.

The advent of the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 made polluters like Ciba and Union Carbide somewhat more accountable for their actions. But it took a group of Toms River parents of children with cancer to ultimately exact a small measure of justice from their corporate assailants.

Author Dan Fagin, a distinguished science reporter, provides meticulously detailed accounts of the rise of the offending chemical industries, the evolution of the science of epidemiology and the struggle of the fiercely devoted parents who hounded politicians and bureaucrats to do their jobs when their natural inclination was to do nothing.

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