The Man Who Beat Monsanto

September 26, 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.

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 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.

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