New York Times Bestseller



A quiet seaside town in New Jersey, Toms River became the unlikely setting for a decades-long drama that culminated in 2001 with one of the largest legal settlements in the annals of toxic dumping. A town that would rather have been known for its Little League World Series champions ended up making history for an entirely different reason: a notorious cluster of childhood cancers scientifically linked to local air and water pollution. For years, large chemical companies had been using Toms River as their private dumping ground, burying tens of thousands of leaky drums in open pits and discharging billions of gallons of acid-laced wastewater into the town’s namesake river.

In an astonishing feat of investigative reporting, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin 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. He tells the stories of the pioneering scientists and physicians who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and brings to life the everyday heroes in Toms River who struggled for justice: a young boy whose cherubic smile belied the fast-growing tumors that had decimated his body from birth; a nurse who fought to bring the alarming incidence of childhood cancers to the attention of authorities who didn’t want to listen; and a mother whose love for her stricken child transformed her into a tenacious advocate for change.

A gripping human drama rooted in a centuries-old scientific quest, Toms River is a tale of dumpers at midnight and deceptions in broad daylight, of corporate avarice and government neglect, and of a few brave individuals who refused to keep silent until the truth was exposed.

(Published March 2013, Paperback edition published April 2015)

Read excerpts on Longreads and in Scientific American.

Read two New York Times columns by Dan about the lessons of Toms River: “Switzerland’s Toxic Prosperity” and  “A Cancer Cycle, From Here to China“.

Reviewers on Toms River

“It’s high time a book did for epidemiology what Jon Krakauer’s best-selling Into Thin Air did for mountain climbing: transform a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end. And such is the power of Dan Fagin’s Toms River, surely a new classic of science reporting. Even when the trek to the summit fails to provide the expected Hollywood vistas of sunshine and blue sky, the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment are undiminished. This is, after all, no fairy tale, but a sober story of probability and compromise, laid out with the care and precision that characterizes both good science and great journalism in a territory where both are often reduced to their worst.”—The New York Times

“A crisp, hard-nosed probe into corporate arrogance and the power of public resistance makes this environmental caper essential reading.”—Publishers Weekly

“The inexact science that looks for links between cancer and pollution flows through Toms River, an absorbing and thoughtful navigation of our era of synthetic chemicals.”—USA Today

“A thrilling journey through the twists and turns of cancer epidemiology, Toms River is essential reading for our times. Dan Fagin takes us on a breathtaking tour through a wide terrain of topics—cancer, the environment, carcinogenesis and prevention—yet manages to keep us engaged with deeply personal stories. He handles topics of great complexity with the dexterity of a scholar, the honesty of a journalist, and the dramatic skill of a novelist.”—Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

“Fagin weaves fascinating background material on epidemiology, statistical analysis and more into this hard-hitting chronicle. A gripping environmental thriller.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred)

“Waterborne destruction has visited Toms River before, albeit via less conspicuous channels, which Dan Fagin traces with marvelous precision in his new book, Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.”—The New Yorker

“A fascinating, carefully written description of chemical industry malpractices during the past five decades and the subsequent actions of citizens, authorities, companies, employees, and lawyers. . . . A balanced book, Toms River does not push a political agenda, unlike Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. But both books offer many valuable lessons to those around the world who wish to improve environmental and occupational health.”—Science

“Dan Fagin’s narrative of the arrival and explosive growth of a chemical plant in New Jersey in the 1950s weaves a complex tale of powerful industry, local politics, water rights, epidemiology, public health and cancer in a gripping, page-turning environmental thriller. Fiercely reported and accentuated with lessons in both historical science and modern medicine, Toms River is a tale of toxic waste, and the families and communities left in its wake.”National Public Radio

“This hard-hitting account of cancer epidemiology in the New Jersey town of Toms River is a triumph. Hinging on a prolonged bout of toxic dumping by several companies up until the 1980s, journalist Dan Fagin’s chronicle mixes reportage with science and industrial history.”Nature

“Fagin’s meticulously researched and compellingly recounted story of Toms River families struggling to find out what was causing the cancers that claimed their children belongs on the shelf with other environmental/medical mysteries. It’s every bit as important — and as well-written — as A Civil Action and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”Newark Star-Ledger

Toms River is an epic tale for our chemical age. Dan Fagin has combined deep reporting with masterful storytelling to recount an extraordinary battle over cancer and pollution in a New Jersey town. Along the way—as we meet chemists, businessmen, doctors, criminals, and outraged citizens—we see how Toms River is actually a microcosm of a world that has come to depend on chemicals without quite comprehending what they might do to our health.”—Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses and Parasite Rex

“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.”—Chemical & Engineering News

“Fagin’s book may not endear him to Toms River’s real estate agents, but its exhaustive reporting and honest look at the cause, obstacles, and unraveling of a cancerous trail should be required environmental reading.”Philadelphia Inquirer

“At once intimate and objective, Toms River is the heartbreaking account of one town’s struggle with a legacy of toxic pollution. Dan Fagin has written a powerful and important book.”—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe

“Toms River is absolutely riveting. I couldn’t put it down.  Dan Fagin has crafted a book about the consequences of industrial pollution that reads like a murder mystery. Read this book and the next time someone complains about too many environmental regulations you’ll have clear answers for why government oversight of industrial waste production and disposal is so important.”—Richard Besser, M.D., chief health and medical editor, ABC News, and former acting director, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks investigated the tragic impact that unethical scientific pursuits had on a family, Toms River unravels the careless environmental practices that damaged a community. The book . . .  features jaw-dropping accounts of senseless waste-disposal practices set against the inspiring saga of the families who stood up to the enormous Toms River chemical plant. The fate of the town, we learn, revolves around the science that cost its residents so much.”—Booklist

“Despite this book’s emotionally neutral title, Toms River is at bottom a horror story of unregulated capitalism. . . . 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.”—BookPage

“In an account equal parts sociology, epidemiology, and detective novel, veteran environmental journalist Dan Fagin chronicles the ordeal of this quiet coastal town, which for decades was a dumping ground for chemical manufacturers. Fagin’s compelling book raises broader questions about what communities are willing to sacrifice in the name of economic development.”—Mother Jones

“THE book to read if you want to understand why the links between pollution and cancer aren’t as neat and tidy in real life as they are in the movies. Dan Fagin tells the heartbreaking story of a New Jersey town that may or may not have become a hotbed of childhood cancers, which (if there really are more cancers than average) may or may not be linked to a local dye factory. Nuanced, fantastically written, and illuminating.”—Boing Boing

“Informative, eye-opening, and equally troubling and inspiring; an expertly written example of economics at a human cost with a strong vein of science throughout. This book is necessary reading for anyone interested in environmental health and cancer epidemiology.”—The Lancet 

“Fagin’s book burns into your brain a powerful, painful picture that should not be forgotten. . . . 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.”—HealthNewsReview

In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions. Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.”—One-Minute Book Reviews

“Toms River the book is anything but unsatisfying. Fagin weaves — without a bit of maudlin grandstanding — strands of chemical invention, corporate behavior, dedicated doctors, nurses and especially citizens, family tragedy, and the invention of epidemiology. The result is a stunning achievement: A historical-scientific page turner, all fact, all the time!”—The Why Files

“The genius of Toms River is that readers pretty much know who did it — but will the perpetrators get caught? And if they do, what are the consequences? The suspense builds as Fagin . . . traverses grand canyons of chemical, medical, and epidemiological scholarship, providing a surprisingly exciting tour through the yawning gap that separates cause from effect. Toms River will fill you with outrage: at the blatant abuses of the bad old days, the weak response of government and — worst of all — the knowledge that it could, and most likely will, happen again.”—OnEarth

“An engaging and well-documented exposé about chemical contamination and the discovery of a cancer cluster . . . . Toms River is a cautionary tale about the Faustian tradeoffs between unfettered economic growth and industrial pollution.”—New Jersey Monthly

“In an age when thorough investigative reporting is becoming increasingly rare, Dan Fagin’s work demonstrates how journalism can bring clarity to the past and also better the present day.”—BookBrowse

“Provocative, intelligent and beautifully written, Toms River is a cautionary tale that has ramifications for the 21st century global economy, as countries such as China grapple with the costs of explosive industrial growth and rampant pollution. It’s well worth reading.”—Idaho Statesman

“Dan Fagin’s Toms River is an epic 500-page saga that is almost unbelievable in its scale and scope. It reads like a novel, with character arcs and plot developments and dramatic twists and turns and yes, suspense stretching even into the last few pages. But it’s also a deeply researched investigative piece of journalism on the unconscionable malfeasance of a corporation – and the creepy complicity of a water company and local politicians and civic leaders. . . . Richly told, Toms River is a multi-layered barnburner of a now universal tale.”—NUVO News, Indianapolis

“The story of every single place that’s been sickened by money and killed by greed, the complete tale of 20th Century environmental calamity told in brilliant microcosm as if it were a LeCarre spy thriller peopled with a cast of Dickensian characters you’d find in a John Irving novel—from shady waste haulers to reluctant-hero parents. . . . It is, to coin a phrase, one ripping good yarn. Yet two-time Pulitzer finalist Fagin doesn’t stop there. Wrapped in the outrageous story of Toms River are the intertwined histories of cancer and the international chemical industry along with the biography of toxic waste and its terrible toll. Crossing continents and centuries, we travel from the laboratory of medieval medic Paracelsus to Philadelphia cancer wards where Toms River’s murdered children succumb to an epidemic of oncological terror. . . . The result is remarkable, a landmark page-turner that’s part science, part history, part comedy, and pure tragedy. It’s also one of the most illuminating, engaging, and deliciously readable books that I’ve encountered in a long while, period.”—Before It’s News

“The IEAM Book of the Year. I have never before felt so confident in recommending a book to the readers of this journal. . . . What makes this book exceptional is the way the author sucks the reader in with the story while also educating him. . . . The book is an compelling as a novel but, as documented in 56 pages of endnotes, it is well researched. Despite decades in this field, I was surprised at how much I learned.”—Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management

“This is a hard-hitting, gutsy book that goes well beyond the obvious. It takes readers behind the scenes and into the minds of those fiercely determined not to let their town’s pollution pass unnoticed, while tackling some cumbersome and often-confusing science. It is a comprehensive, impressive look back at what should never have happened, but also a clarion call for the future as pressure mounts to roll back enforcement of water and air pollution laws.”—SEJournal

“Fagin’s reporting lays waste to the one-time conventional wisdom that there’s no such thing as a cancer cluster. in doing so, his incredible book gives life to the stories of Toms River as well as a path to making sure there will one day be fewer stories like theirs to tell.”— Bay Journal

“Fagin’s story is a forensic on how the industries, legally and not so legally, dumped while being disingenuous about it, how public officials fell all over themselves to allow and provide for it because jobs were created, as “fixes” were made that included pumping the waste through a pipe into the Atlantic Ocean offshore near popular beach towns.” Post and Courier    

In the tradition of A Civil Action, The Emperor of All Maladies and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Dan Fagin melds hard-hitting investigative reporting with a fascinating scientific detective story and unforgettable characters. At its core, Toms River is a meticulous history of the poisoning of a quaint New Jersey town, but it reads like a crime thriller that is impossible to put down.”—Alternatives Journal

“While it might not have you flipping the pages like a Grisham novel, it’s a sure bet to keep you engrossed the whole way through. It’s got to be the best nonfiction book I’ve read since A Civil Action.Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

toxic deception


(Originally published in 1997, updated in 2002) 

Dry cleaning, particleboard, plywood, permanent press fabrics, many popular detergents and common pesticides are all hazardous to human health-that means toxins in your food, your water, your clothes, and your walls. In Toxic Deception, prize-winning investigative journalists Dan Fagin and Marianne Lavelle and the Center for Public Integrity bring you a stunning exposé of the secretive world of the chemical giants.

Why do corporations keep harmful products on the market even when safer, cheaper alternatives are available? Secret industry documents and internal records of the Environmental Protection Agency prove that the chemical industry twists scientific studies to mislead the public and play down the dangers of its products, while the EPA stands by. The EPA usually bases its regulations on safety tests run, directly or indirectly, by the very companies the agency is meant to keep watch on.

Fagin and Lavelle back up their investigations with analysis of a range of scientific studies and, chillingly, the stories of families whose lives have been devastated by toxic products they thought were harmless. The book also explains how you can reduce your own risk and help to revitalize a dying system of health and safety laws.

The New York Times described Toxic Deception this way: “Toxic Deception shows how the industry uses campaign contributions, junkets, job offers, ‘scorched-earth’ courtroom strategies, misleading advertising and multimillion-dollar public relations campaigns to keep their products on the market no matter how great the potential dangers. It’s the story of the triumph of a special interest over the public interest.”

The group Investigative Reporters and Editors named Toxic Deception a finalist for its national award for best investigative journalism book of 1997.