Corporate greed and government neglect in New Jersey

October 10, 2014

Toms River: A Story of Science & Salvation
Dan Fagin
Bantam Books, 2013
538 pages, $43.95 (hb)

In yet another chapter of the well-thumbed book of “corporate avarice and government neglect”, writes Dan Fagin, the town of Toms River in New Jersey, two hours south of New York, paid a high price in cancer for the pollution of the chemical giant, Ciba-Geigy.

The Swiss company came to the industry-friendly state in 1952 to make dyes and chemicals. The waste generated was dumped in the river, buried in the soil, piped to the beaches and sent up the factory smokestack. Thrown away and, Ciba-Geigy hoped, forgotten.

But there is no “away” in ecology, so residents drank the toxic water, ate the tainted fish, breathed the carcinogenic air and swam in the polluted ocean. The nylon stockings of the factory’s secretaries melted from the vapours.

Because detoxification of the chemical waste “would have cut directly into Ciba-Geigy’s profits” it was avoided. County, state and federal politicians. and their senior health and environment department bureaucrats, were compliant in letting the state’s second largest employer get away with it for decades.

An infuriated community, with the families of cancer-stricken children taking the lead, fought back. Greenpeace added flair. Reporters, government scientists and state prosecutors doing their job, in the public interest as they should, added their professional weight.

Not all followed suit, however. Scientists for corporate hire, and the local tourism and real estate industries concerned over bad publicity about their patch being devalued as a “putrid industrial wasteland”, joined the counter-revolution.

The Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, fearing for their jobs, were also hostile. Too late, they acknowledged that their members’ occupational exposure to the company’s carcinogens made them natural, and powerful, allies with the residents.

The thanks the workers received for their corporatist spirit was to see their jobs sent to China, Alabama and Louisiana where wages, taxes and general “government interference” were even weaker.

Choosing to settle out of court, where the company’s true level of guilt would avoid a vastly more costly airing at public trial, the concluding US$35 million compensation deal for affected families in 2001 was one of the largest ever involving toxic exposure.

For Ciba-Geigy, this deal was a loss-cutting exercise designed to protect its brand in its business future in pharmaceuticals. After making a mint from causing cancer, Ciba’s successor company, Novartis, developed a drug to prolong the life of children with leukaemia, making money from cancer at both ends.

A journalism professor, Fagin writes with narrative drive and forensic clarity. He recounts the history of environmental health with compelling drama and adds gripping suspense to confidence intervals, odds ratios and other tools of statistical analysis. His book, with scientific and moral energy, calls the corporate chemical criminals for exactly what they are.

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