Poisoned by Industrial Pollution

A cancer-ravaged man and his mother work to expose corporate practices of waste dumping in their town.


| September 2015



Dumping waste

The choices that citizens of Toms River, New Jersey, made to support their town's economic growth came at a high environmental cost, allowing corporations to create industrial pollution that damaged the health of the community.

Photo by Fotolia/karichs

Deemed a “new classic of environmental reporting” by the New York Times when it was originally published in hardcover, Toms River (Island Press, 2013) is the story of how the town of Toms River, NJ, was plagued by industrial pollution, and how the community fought for justice. In this excerpt, author Dan Fagin focuses on Toms River resident Michael Gillick, and his lifelong battle with cancer.

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On the rare occasions when Michael Gillick needed to know what day it was, he could check his pillbox. It was the size of a small briefcase and had seven compartments, one for each day of the week. Each compartment was subdivided into sections, for the five times each day that Michael took his pills: seven o’clock in the morning, noon, 3:30, 8:30, and eleven at night. (He set his cell phone alarm to the times, to make sure he did not forget.) Once a week, Michael or his mother would refill the compartments, in a careful ritual that was the pharmacopoeial equivalent of turning the hourglass.      

For a typical week, he counted out 138 pills: tiny pink morphine tablets for pain, yellow steroids to normalize his immune system, white phenobarbitals for seizures, and blue oval-shaped antihistamines for nausea and dizziness. There was also Prevacid for heartburn, Corgard for high blood pressure, and a yogurt pill for indigestion. Three times a day, Michael took a powerful blood pressure medication called Regitine. Years earlier, the drug’s manufacturer—the company’s name at the time was Ciba-Geigy—had stopped making Regitine in pill form, but Michael had secured a large stockpile and had been working his way through it ever since.

Michael lived with his parents in a ranch-style house on a shady street in the comfortable Brookside Heights section of Toms River, New Jersey. He did not get out much. He loved movies, but a trip to the theater was an ordeal because he was extremely small. Strangers would point and say, “Oh, what a cutie!” Once, when he was fourteen, he stepped out into the lobby to look for a bathroom, and a woman demanded to know why he was wandering off without his mother. He had tried dating, but it did not go well. When Michael was sixteen, he developed a mad crush on the girl who delivered the newspaper. He would watch her from his bedroom window every morning. But when he finally got up the courage to try to speak to her, he kept his eyes on the floor. Later, he realized why: He did not want to watch her watching him.

Born in 1979, Michael was now a man. He stood four feet six inches tall and weighed about one hundred pounds.