In 2012, Dewayne Anthony Lee Johnson took a job as groundskeeper for a California county school district. "I did everything," he said in an interview with Time magazine. "Caught skunks, mice, and raccoons, patched holes in walls, worked on irrigation issues."
He also treated the school grounds with Roundup weed killer, about 20 to 30 times a year and sometimes for several hours a day. On one occasion, the pesticide sprayer broke, drenching Johnson in the herbicide. Afterward, a rash broke out and skin lesions spread across his body.
Several doctor visits later, Johnson learned that he had developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Johnson would go on to sue the pesticide's manufacturer, Monsanto, and to win a historic judgment last fall. This has set in motion a number of new cases that could hold the company accountable for its product and educate the public on the dangers of its use, with the verdict in the most recent case topping $2 billion.
Roundup uses the active ingredient glyphosate to kill unwanted weeds and grasses. While commonly used by groundskeepers, landscapers and everyday citizens, Roundup became particularly useful in the farming community after Monsanto, its original manufacturer, introduced glyphosate-resistant seeds for genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Glyphosate has long been the subject of debate regarding its effects on human health and safety. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) labeled glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen.
Johnson's lawsuit against Monsanto, filed in 2016, argued that his exposure to Roundup was a significant contributor to his cancer and that Monsanto did not warn users of the potential health effects associated with using the herbicide.
Johnson's case is just one of more than 13,400 consumer lawsuits against Monsanto and Bayer AG, which acquired the company in 2018. Many of these allege the herbicide is the cause of cancers including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, B-cell lymphoma and leukemia.
Another high-profile case was filed by California resident Edwin Hardeman, who used Roundup since the 1980s and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015. In late March, a unanimous jury awarded him $80 million. That award is being appealed.
And on May 13, a jury in Oakland, Calif., ordered Monsanto to pay more than $2 billion in damages to Alva and Alberta Pilliod, a married couple in their 70s who blame their non-Hodgkin lymphoma on their long-term exposure to Roundup. A Bayer spokesman called the verdict "excessive and unjustifiable."
Meanwhile, Monsanto continues to make millions selling glyphosate, as do other manufacturers. The company insists its product is safe when used as directed. Yet the evidence supporting a potential correlation between the use of glyphosate and various forms of cancer is strong enough to raise concern.
Communities all over the world are moving to prohibit Roundup and other harmful pesticides. Recently, New York City Council Members Ben Kallos and Carlina Rivera introduced a bill that would ban glyphosate from being sprayed in public parks. "Parks should be for playing, not pesticides," Kallos said in a statement. Additionally, countries including Ireland, France and Brazil have taken steps to ban glyphosate altogether.
In legal circles, Johnson's case is recognized as a historic win. But this is not an issue that really has winners. Johnson is still desperately ill, and glyphosate is still being manufactured.
The court battles over glyphosate highlight a much larger issue: the ability of ordinary people to hold large corporations accountable. They are inspiring legislation around the globe to protect the health and safety of everyday citizens.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Lauren Sandford is a consumer advocate for ConsumerSafety.org, a group that provides legal connections for people in need. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by the Tribune News Service.