Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist talks about pollution case during FDU visit

Photo by Sarena Gerard: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin gives a talk on Oct. 19 about the pollution and contamination crisis in Toms River.

Photo by Sarena Gerard: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Fagin gives a talk on Oct. 19 about the pollution and contamination crisis in Toms River.

Sarena Gerard

Staff Writer

 

Toms River, New Jersey, was once a toxic dumpsite that caused cancer, and journalist Dan Fagin wanted to know why.

On Oct. 19, Fagin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New York University professor, visited FDU’s Florham Campus to talk about his research on the Toms River pollution case from his book, “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation.” The presentation and discussion was a “Friendswood” event, which is a reference to FDU Professor René Steinke’s novel, “Friendswood.”

According to Fagin’s research, a major chemical company named Ciba-Geigy was responsible for using Toms River as a toxic dumpsite where the company drained contaminated wastewater into the town’s river.  Fagin also addressed the Toms River Water Company and other groups that allowed the pollution to continue for years.

Fagin said that his research consisted of an understanding of the effects that environmental pollution has on human health.

In his book, Fagin writes about the people involved in the pollution case, including doctors, scientists, and even a young boy who was born with tumors all over his body. Fagin also covered people who spoke out for change.

Steinke’s “Friendswood” focuses on the Brio Superfund site outside of Friendswood, Texas. In “Friendswood,” an industrial leak results in the illnesses and deaths of residents from the small town. The novel focuses on moral responsibility to correct the issue.

“Although it’s inspired by real events, the story is invented, and through the storytelling and characters, I connect concerns about the environment with other themes,” Steinke said.

Fagin began by saying that he previously worked for Newsday and that people often informed him about cancer on their block. “My job was to use the power of journalism to give people answers.

Fagin stated, “This book was my effort to make sense out of the contradictions, to try to explain how these outrageous series of events happened in an everyday town like Toms River, and also to understand why it is so difficult to do something that seems so obvious, which is to understand the connection between environmental pollution and human health.”

In order to make the connections, Fagin said he studied chemical companies and discovered that in the past, several of them created dyes made from arsenic before eventually moving on to creating other products.

To help students understand the effects that the chemical pollution had on the people of Toms River, Fagin said, “Until we feel something on a personal level, it is really hard for us to develop a core empathy.”

He explained, “It is something we want to investigate, as opposed to keeping things going how they are.”

Fagin also said that social media might not give society the most accurate information and that news aggregators that pull information into one site for free cause news outlets to lose revenue.

“Public trust in mass media is falling,” Fagin said, when explaining that the issue is making it harder to question certain matters, like that of Toms River, because people keep getting misinformed online.

Freshman Amanda Hilsinger, who was required to read Steinke’s “Friendswood,” said she was interested in getting more information about Toms River so that she could connect it to her class reading.

“I mainly wanted to know why nothing was being fixed and I wanted more information on what was happening to make connections, and what was being done about the problem,” she said.

FDU Honors Writing Professor Kenneth Sammond said that Fagin’s visit was helpful for students in making the connection with Steinke’s novel.

“The talk was very helpful in tying things together that were very complex for many students: after all, the book encompasses almost 200 years of dye chemistry, plus it focuses on 60 years of Ciba-Geigy’s involvement and influence in Toms River,” Sammond said. “In addition, his considerations of social media and confirmation bias were very helpful in having students understand better the implications of why we choose not to see problems even when given more information.”

For more information on Fagin and “Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation,” visit http://danfagin.com

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