Pulitzer Prize Winner Dan Fagin Visits Stevens to Discuss Book on Toms River Cancer Cluster

4/25/2014

On April 23, 2014, science journalist Dan Fagin visited Stevens Institute of Technology to discuss his latest book Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam Books, 2013), which was recently awarded a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. The book recounts the sixty-year saga of rampant pollution and inadequate oversight that made Toms River a cautionary example for fast-growing industrial towns from South Jersey to South China. The event was co-sponsored by the College of Arts and Letters and the Center for Science Writings, which sponsors free, public events at which prominent writers – including journalists, scientists, engineers, philosophers and other scholars – visit Stevens to discuss science-related issues.

Fagin, an associate professor of journalism and director of the graduate level Science, Health and Environmental Program at New York University, opened by suggesting that we should be more proactive in interpreting data and acting on the information it provides us, using the example of Toms River to show how the observation of childhood cancer clusters were linked to pollution generated by two local corporations.

These corporations – Ciba-Geigy and Union Carbide – created hazardous pollution by improperly handling waste, and both companies were later found responsible for contaminating the local water supply. But, due to lack of environmental knowledge and because the companies employed large numbers of the local population, it took decades before these contamination issues were addressed.

“There were good jobs, plenty of them then,” he said. “Ciba was the largest employer in Ocean County for many years, and the money was good. It was an engine for social mobility for blue-collar workers as well as white-collar engineering jobs.”

As early as the 1950s, when the Ciba-Geigy plant had been open less than ten years, residents noticed that their water tasted funny. Rather than treating the source of the problem with the water, the company instead dug new wells, leaving the unused wells to stagnate in the ground.

“Back in those days, people really didn’t pay attention to the concept of groundwater pollution,” he said. “Waste was dumped into local retention ponds that held billions of gallons of liquid waste per year, so much that by the 1960s, there were times when there was more waste in the river than water.”

Eventually, both sites were deemed Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and, by the 1990s, a few residents of Toms River noticed an increase in cancers amongst the childhood population.

Fagin and others relied on epidemiology – using patterns and statistics to examine public health issues amongst specific populations – to research the link between corporate irresponsibility and childhood cancers, but because of the small number of cases in the population over all, it was not possible to conduct studies to determine whether or not the cancer cluster was a random occurrence. This was due in part because childhood cancer in general is very rare amongst the population and was thus difficult to evaluate. 

“We know there are cancer clusters, but the real question is: Are cancer clusters worth the time to investigate? I’d say absolutely yes,” he said.

While pollution in Toms River has been dealt with, Fagin noted that the cycle of pollution by manufacturing facilities in populated areas remains, as these companies are now outsourcing their operations to rapidly industrializing areas in China.

“The question is: What next? How are we going to break this cycle?”

Fagin closed by suggesting we must enhance our scientific literacy and learn to use collected data effectively in order to find solutions for our most pressing environmental issues.

“We need to be engaged,” he said. “If we want our government to be aggressive in promoting public health, we have to be aggressive as citizens. We need to show up for meetings and ask questions. These are part of our obligations as citizens of a democracy.”

About Stevens Institute of Technology
Stevens Institute of Technology, The Innovation University®, is a premier, private research university situated in Hoboken, N.J. overlooking the Manhattan skyline. Founded in 1870, technological innovation has been the hallmark and legacy of Stevens’ education and research programs for more than 140 years. Within the university’s three schools and one college, more than 6,100 undergraduate and graduate students collaborate with more than 350 faculty members in an interdisciplinary, student-centric, entrepreneurial environment to advance the frontiers of science and leverage technology to confront global challenges. Stevens is home to three national research centers of excellence, as well as joint research programs focused on critical industries such as healthcare, energy, finance, defense and STEM education and coastal sustainability. The university is consistently ranked among the nation’s elite for return on investment for students, career services programs and mid-career salaries of alumni. Stevens is in the midst of a 10-year strategic plan, The Future. Ours to Create., designed to further extend the Stevens legacy to create a forward-looking and far-reaching institution with global impact.