The man who beat Mon­santo

A jury ruled the com­pany caused De­wayne John­son’s can­cer. He wants to make a dif­fer­ence – while he can

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Sam Levin SAN FRAN­CISCO

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

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