The man who beat Monsanto
A jury ruled the company caused Dewayne Johnson’s cancer. He wants to make a difference – while he can
Dewayne Johnson tries not to think about dying. Doctors have said the 46-year-old cancer patient could have months to live, but he doesn’t like to dwell on death. These days, he has an easy distraction – navigating the international attention on his life.
The father of three and former groundskeeper has been learning to live with the gift and burden of being in the spotlight in the month since a California jury ruled that Monsanto caused his terminal cancer. The historic verdict against the agrochemical corporation, which included an award of $289m, has ignited widespread concerns about the world’s most popular weedkiller and prompted regulatory debates across the globe.
Johnson, who never imagined he would be known as “dying man” in dozens of news headlines, is still processing the historic win.
“Going against a company like this, becoming a public figure, it’s intense,” he said in a rare interview since the 10 August verdict. “I felt an enormous amount of responsibility.”
Johnson, who goes by the name Lee, was the first person to take Monsanto to trial on allegations that the global seed and chemical company spent decades hiding the cancer risks of its herbicide. He is also the first to win. The groundbreaking verdict further stated that Monsanto “acted with malice or oppression” and knew or should have known that its chemicals were “dangerous”.
Monsanto, meanwhile, filed papers last month seeking to challenge the verdict on the grounds that the science behind it is insufficient .
The chemical that changed Johnson’s life is glyphosate, which Monsanto began marketing as Roundup in 1974. The corporation presented the herbicide as a breakthrough that could kill nearly every weed without posing dangers to humans or the environment.
Roundup products are now registered in 130 countries and approved for use on more than 100 crops, and glyphosate can be found in food, water sources and agricultural workers’ urine. Research over the years, however, has repeatedly raised concerns about potential harm linked to the herbicide, and in 2015, the World Health Organisation’s international agency for research on cancer concluded glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.
Johnson said he knew nothing of the risks in 2012 when he began working as a groundskeeper for a public school district in Benicia, a city
50km east of San Francisco.
Johnson liked his job, located near his hometown of Vallejo, where he was born and raised and still lives with his wife, Araceli, and their two young sons. His main role at the district was working as an integrated pest manager, responsible for spraying Roundup and Ranger Pro (another Monsanto glyphosate herbicide) at a handful of schools and sports fields. Some days, he would spray 230 litres’ worth. Johnson said he wasn’t concerned about health hazards, given that Monsanto’s labels had no warning. In a training session, he was told it was “safe enough to drink”. He also followed the instructions diligently, he testified, reading them every time he sprayed. He compared the process to the way he followed recipes when he worked at a restaurant.
He wore protective gear while spraying to be extra cautious. But there were occasional leaks, and one time his skin accidentally became drenched.
In 2014, after about two years of use, he started to experience rashes, and he knew something was wrong.
Soon, he had marks on his face and lesions throughout his body, and doctors struggled at first to understand what was happening to him.
Eventually, he learned the truth: it was cancer, and it was killing him. When they received the news, Araceli broke down weeping while he remained stoic, he recalled.
“I’m not the type of person that’s scared to die,” he said. He wanted to figure out why he was sick – and what he could do to fight it.
At the highly watched trial in San Francisco this summer, Johnson and Araceli both testified lovingly of their marriage. But they also described how cancer changed everything.
Johnson said he used to do most of the chores, including cooking and cleaning, but couldn’t keep up once he got sick. Johnson was so ill at one point he could barely get out of bed for a month. Johnson has non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), a blood cancer that affects the immune system and caused his skin lesions. At times, the cancer has been so painful and debilitating, he couldn’t walk or be outside in the sun.
At one point when his skin was getting worse, Johnson called a Monsanto hotline to discuss his illness. He spoke to a woman who sounded like she was reading from a script and told him someone would follow up with him. He never heard back and for a while continued spraying herbicide at work.
But he started to do some of his own research: “I wanted to know the facts.” Eventually, he learned that there were studies linking glyphosate to cancer – a fact a supervisor later mentioned to him. “I felt totally betrayed,” he said. “I I lost everything. I was at rock bottom.” .”
Johnson eventually arrived at a place where he felt a lawsuit was s his only hope – and the only way to o uncover the truth.
Regardless of the outcome, Johnson v Monsanto was always going to be a newsworthy trial, because the judge allowed the cancer patient’s legal team to bring scientific arguments to the courtroom. The proceedings further shone a light on internal Monsanto emails over the years that Johnson’s attorneys said showed how
Mthe company had repeatedly rejected critical research and expert warnings.
Some evidence suggested that Monsanto had also strategised plans to “ghostwrite” favourable research. onsanto, which was bought by the pharmaceutical giant Bayer earlier this year, has continued to argue that Roundup does not cause cancer and that critics are “cherrypicking” studies while ignoring research that showed its products were safe. The jury disagreed. They ruled that Johnson also deserved $250m in punitive damages and $39.2m for losses. When the verdict was announced, Johnson said his body briefly went into a kind of shock.
The unanimous decision said Monsanto’s products presented a “substantial danger” to people and the company failed to warn consumers of the risks. “They have been hiding for years and getting away with it,” Johnson said. “They have to pay the price for not being honest and putting people’s health at risk for the sake of making a profit.”
Before the verdict, Johnson said he had no expectations.
“I never really discussed winning or money or amounts with the legal guys,” he said, adding that he did fear the implications of a Monsanto win: “If we lose, the facts won’t keep coming out. That would be the worst part.”
Johnson said he wanted to use the platform he has been given to continue raising awareness about glyphosate. He is now advocating to get the product off every school campus and playground in California.
The Benicia school district, his former employer, already said it would stop using glyphosate. He considers that a start.
Johnson is currently undergoing regular chemotherapy and said he is feeling better than he has in a long time. Doctors have said he could have at most two years left to live.
He would now like to see Monsanto add cancer warning labels so that people can make informed decisions. He also hopes the legal process does not drag on, but expects Monsanto to continue fighting until the end. “That’s what big companies like that do.”
He had one other request for Monsanto, something he knows he will never receive. Johnson would like an apology.
‘They have been hiding for years and getting away with it. They have haveto to pay’ pay
JOSH EDELSON/APMonsanto is fighting against the order to pay Dewayne Johnson $289m