The story, as the news sources tell it, goes like this. He thought it was a day to celebrate. Dewayne Lee Johnson, or “Lee,” as friends and family call him, had worked hard since getting hired into the mail department of California’s Benicia School District in 2012. A family man with a wife and two young sons, Johnson took pride in his dependability and can-do attitude toward his work. Within months, he was rewarded for that work ethic with a promotion — a piece of news any family would be grateful for. He couldn’t have known the tragic turning point it was going to be for him and his family.
Johnson soon began noticing strange lesions cropping up on his formerly smooth, healthy skin. He contacted Monsanto, the maker of the potent glyphosate-based weed killers he was using frequently to maintain the school district properties in his new job as groundskeeper. He asked them if there was a connection between their products and the skin lesions — they promised they’d get back to him but they never did, even after his repeated attempts to reach them.
In 2014, within two years of accepting the promotion, Johnson got to the bottom of what was causing the lesions — doctors told him he had developed non-Hodgkins lymphoma. While he continued working and kept trying to reach Monsanto for an answer about its products, he soon received even worse news. The cancer, which had started out as one the doctors could treat and help manage, had morphed into a more aggressive kind. Dewayne Lee Johnson and his family were devastated to learn he would likely not live past the year 2020.
It Is Difficult to Fully Prevent Exposure During Normal Usage
“I knew I was applying chemicals and I knew if it could kill weeds, I was pretty sure it could kill me,” Johnson said while testifying in a San Francisco courtroom. He detailed the lengths he went to try to protect himself, including using a disposable jumpsuit, gloves, and a face mask. He read the instruction pamphlet every time he used the Monsanto products Roundup and Ranger Pro because he was concerned about accidentally using too much and hurting trees. Yet despite his cautious approach, exposure occurred. In the breezy region where he worked, sprayback onto his face and neck was a regular occurrence. In some instances, significant amounts leaked onto Johnson; the portable spray pack that he wore as he worked wasn’t leak-proof, and neither were the hoses on the spraying apparatus mounted to his truck.
Occurrences like these can be par for the course in maintenance work, yet Monsanto’s legal team cross-examined Johnson about his training. They tried to build a case that Johnson must have diluted the glyphosate-based products improperly, or didn’t receive enough training, but the jury didn’t agree. They ultimately awarded him $289 million in an array of punitive and compensatory damages. Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! interviewed Johnson’s lawyer, and featured Johnson’s statement about why he decided to hold Monsanto accountable:
Is Glyphosate as Safe as Monsanto Says It Is?
Monsanto has gone to astonishing lengths to combat any questions about the safety of glyphosate, and it has a vested interest in protecting its product — the agribusiness giant made $1.9 billion in gross profits from its pesticide lineup (primarily Roundup) in 2015 alone. Yet behind Dewayne Lee Johnson’s historic lawsuit against the corporation, there is a line of thousands more who allege in pending lawsuits that Roundup or other Monsanto glyphosate products are connected to their cancer.
When the World Health Organization (WHO) took a stand in 2015 that glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) after reviewing independent, published studies with statistical significance, Monsanto went on an all-out blitz to hire “independent” scientists to counter their data and smear the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an independent arm of the WHO. The company tried to discredit the scientist leading the IARC panel on glyphosate by claiming he’d covered up a study that came down in Monsanto’s favor, when in fact that research wasn’t published (which prevents the panel from using it) and wasn’t statistically significant.
The masterminds behind the public relations ploy did their job, though — it sowed seeds of confusion and complication, which is fodder for doubt in some people’s minds and an excuse for regulators to delay taking action. Nevertheless, the IARC’s stance remains the benchmark, and many organizations are taking their cues from it. The State of California includes glyphosate on its list of substances that have to be labeled because of cancer risk, and cities and school campuses across the United States are finally starting to scrap Roundup and other glyphosate-based strategies from their groundskeeping plans.
Where Else Is Glyphosate?
On the heels of the lawsuit verdict, a consumer watchdog organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), released its study evaluating the amount of glyphosate present in popular breakfast cereals. While none of the organic cereals tested in the study had glyphosate levels that exceeded EWG’s health safety benchmark of 160 parts per billion, 31 out of the 45 non-organic cereals tested did — with many well above that level.
Much of that glyphosate is making it into the foods EWG tested because glyphosate is used at the end of the season to prepare crops like oats or wheat for harvesting. Glyphosate kills the plants and speeds up the process of harvesting. But other crops are sprayed with glyphosate throughout the growing season because they have been genetically engineered to tolerate exposure to it.
Since 1996, when Monsanto released its first genetically engineered (GMO) seeds that can tolerate being sprayed with Roundup, application of the weed killer has surged. In the United States, hundreds of millions of pounds are sprayed on agricultural fields each year. But the escalating use of glyphosate herbicides has led to “superweeds” that are resistant to it, driving a cycle of increased use of other weed killers. And glyphosate is now ubiquitous in the environment. One study analyzed water samples over a 10-year period in 38 states and the District of Columbia; it found glyphosate and related chemicals in nearly 59 percent of surface water samples and over 50 percent of soil and sediment samples.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself and Your Family
- Find alternatives to keeping weeds at bay that don’t include glyphosate.
- Buy organic products, which cannot be produced with GMO crops or synthetic weed killers like glyphosate.
- And sign on to our action right now telling the EPA to ban Roundup!