by Sam Levin, Guardian UK | September 27, 2018
A jury ruled the agrochemical company caused Dewayne Johnson’s cancer. He tells the Guardian he wants to use the victory to make a difference while he still 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 school 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 health 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 told the Guardian 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” and knew or should have known that its chemicals were “dangerous”.
The legacy of the extraordinary ruling could be felt for generations, and Johnson said he is working to make the victory as impactful as possible while he still has time.
Monsanto, meanwhile, filed papers last week seeking to throw out the verdict – and prevent Johnson’s family from receiving the money.
‘Safe enough to drink’
The chemical that changed Johnson’s life is glyphosate, which Monsanto began marketing as Roundup in 1974. The corporation presented the herbicide as a technological breakthrough that could kill nearly every weed without posing dangers to humans or the environment.
Research over the years, however, has repeatedly raised concerns about potential harms linked to the herbicide, and in 2015, the World Health Organization’s international agency for research on cancer classified glyphosate as “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 suburb 30 miles 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. In one social media video he posted from work one day, he was energetic about his duties, telling his followers, “To have a job, I feel real good, man.” He added that one of his animal traps had caught a mouse, saying, “Mickey got snatched!”
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 in the area. Some days, he would spray 150 gallons worth over several hours.
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 label 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 regular use, he started to experience rashes and other forms of skin irritation, and he knew something was wrong.
“I used to have flawless skin,” he recalled. “It was very noticeable to me and to other people. This wasn’t normal.”
Soon, he had marks on his face and frightening 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.
‘I felt totally betrayed’
Johnson and Araceli met in a pre-algebra class in community college about 14 years ago. She was immediately drawn to him, but too scared to talk to him. Her sister, who was in the same class, eventually approached Johnson for her.
At the highly watched trial in San Francisco this summer, the husband and wife both testified lovingly of their marriage. But they also described how cancer changed everything.
Johnson said he used to do most of the household 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. He said he had missed a lot due to cancer, including the funeral of his uncle and various activities with his sons, who are now aged 10 and 13.
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. On some occasions, it hurt to have fabrics touching his skin, he testified. There have been periods where intimacy with his wife was simply not possible. In court, he expressed gratitude that she had stayed by his side through all of his suffering.
Araceli had to start working two jobs at a local school district and nursing home, sometimes leading to 14-hour days, she testified. Sometimes, Johnson would cry at night when he thought she was asleep, she added.
Their 10-year-old son, Kahli, wants to be a chemist, according to Johnson, and he once made a “potion” to try and cure his father. It was a random assortment of kitchen ingredients in a small blue bottle.
“It was salty, sweet, lemony,” Johnson said. “It was not good.”
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 at work later mentioned to him.
“I felt totally betrayed,” he said. “I lost everything. I was at rock bottom.”
Johnson eventually arrived at a place where he felt a lawsuit was his only hope – and the only way to uncover the truth.
‘I’m hoping that it snowballs’
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 the company had repeatedly rejected critical research and expert warnings.
Some evidence suggested that Monsanto had also strategized plans to “ghostwrite” favorable research.
Monsanto, 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.
“I felt like all the fluids went out of my body and rushed back in,” he recalled.
The jury’s 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 about the outcome.
“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.”
Pedram Esfandiary, one of Johnson’s lawyers, said he was consistently impressed with Johnson’s ability to remain optimistic and focused on exposing the facts and protecting others from Roundup hazards.
“This guy is dealing with the reality of his mortality,” he said. “His life is on the line because of what happened … He was concerned about getting the truth out.”
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.
The case could encourage consumers to change their habits and explore alternative ways to manage weeds, he said: “I’m hoping that it snowballs and people really get the picture and they start to make decisions about what they eat, what they spray in their farms.”
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 is also focused on his music and has plans to release an EP of rap songs, including one titled Not My Time about his cancer struggle and pushing forward despite the “early death sentence”.
For Johnson, the case was never about “crumbling a company or taking down an empire”. “I hope [Monsanto] gets the message that people in America and across the world are not ignorant,” he said. “They have already done their own research.”
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 for years, but expects Monsanto to continue aggressively 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.