In the last decade or so, we’ve seen an increase in work related, and long-term, negative health effects. As a result, many companies have gotten into trouble with OSHA, even facing lawsuits. Monsanto, a company, now been bought out by Bayer, has been facing black lash for several years. A former groundkeeper has been diagnosed with cancer and attributes his declining health to his career.
Monsanto’s Deemed at Fault
Dewayne “Lee” Johnson from the Bay Area in California filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in 2016. The year prior, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had announced a classification that would both hurt and help Johnson. The IARC announced that glyphosate is likely, “carcinogenic to humans.” An active ingredient in most weed killers, including Ranger Pro (the generic version of Roundup), the toxic chemical was part of Johnson’s everyday work routine during his employment at Monsanto. The lawsuit claimed Ranger Pro was a major contributor to his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. After being hired to work for the Benicia School District, a job that, “saved me from the bottom,” Johnson used Ranger Pro spray at several facilities. These spread throughout the district, including fields and fence lines.
Monsanto Chemical Company was founded in 1901 in St. Louis by John F. Queeny, with the intent to manufacture synthetic sugar known as saccharin. Monsanto has gone through a number of transitions since its founding. However, in 2018 and post-trial, Bayer bought out Monsanto. Moreover, the company has now been integrated into Bayer, rather than still existing as Monsanto.
Johnson explained during the trial that although he did have some safety training, he wasn’t made aware of the product’s risks. “The main thing that sticks out to me that I remember is that she told us it was safe enough to drink,” Johnson recalled. He seemed to have very little cause for concern until one Summer.
Events Leading to Toxic Exposure
In 2013, Johnson was driving his truck with a tank of herbicide in the back when a hose got caught and snapped off. “A fountain of Ranger Pro coming out of the back of my little pickup truck,” is how Johnson described the events. “I had my Tyvek suit on, but of course this thing is showering me,” he explained. “I got it all over me, down in my suit, in my gloves, everywhere. And I went back to the shop, changed my shirt — I left the pants on, I didn’t have any other trousers — and I cleaned up and I went back to work.”
After some time, he discovered a lesion on his knee that had spread to his whole body by October of the following year. That same year, 2014, he’d been given his life altering diagnosis.
Blessing and Curse
Johnson and his wife had been living with their children at his mother’s house. The family was struggling, and this job would completely change their lives for the better. Therefore, Johnson happily took the position and gratefully attended work every day. Unfortunately, this godsend would eventually lead to his demise. Consequently, Johnson took his hardship and turned it into something educational for the public. His documentary “Into the Weeds” was released in 2022, and sheds light on companies like Monsanto, who use toxic chemicals in their products’ listed ingredients.
Johnson’s 2016 case against Monsanto was the first, “a test case”, that would eventually make way for tens of thousands of other cases, including Mario Cannon’s, to come to light. Despite these accusations, Bayer still maintains that glyphosate is safe for humans. In fact, Johnson seems to have gotten very little support following his diagnosis. He immediately contacted Monsanto but never got a response. At the time of the incident, Dr. Daniel Goldstein was the lead for medical sciences and outreach at Monsanto. He claimed he would contact Johnson but according to Johnson’s attorney Goldstein never reached out. Furthermore, Johnson was forced to continue using the product resulting from lack of communication from Monsanto representatives.
Johnson disclosed that, “Before this illness, I had pretty much flawless skin. Always clean, always fresh outfits, stuff like that,” he says. “I was the pretty boy all the time trying to be fresh for the ladies, you know? So that’s something of the past.” Although the diagnosis has caused disruption in his life, his greatest hurdle would be telling his kids. “My boys, they saw the effects, they saw the markings, they saw me limping around … so I had to go ahead and tell them, so they’d know from me what was going on,” he explained.
The trial came to fruition and Johnson’s attorney’s opening argument explains, “Instead of just warning and telling consumers, ‘Hey, these studies show this stuff can cause cancer,’ Monsanto has refused. They have fought science. And you will see evidence that shows that Monsanto has specifically gone out of its way to bully scientists and to fight independent researchers who are finding conclusions outside of the Monsanto corporate umbrella. And the consequences of that conduct are why we’re here today. Because of what Monsanto has done, Mr. Johnson was not given a choice … He truly believed it was safe.”
Monsanto’s Held Accountable
His goal was to do 2 things. Firstly, Johnson wanted to open a platform through which other victims could share their stories. Secondly, he wanted to push for Monsanto to change the product labels. “I remember the night before the verdict. I got really concerned, like, if I lose, these people won’t ever get a chance to even tell their story.” Johnson explained in his documentary. “One of the things that people ask me [is] what is it that I want,” says Johnson. “And I want the label to be changed.”
After a short, 3-day trial the jury unanimously agreed that Monsanto was at fault. As a result, Johnson was awarded $298 million, later changed to a lesser amount of around $20 million. Altogether Bayer has allocated for roughly $16 billion for the lawsuits, of which 98,000 of the 125,000 cases have been addressed.
Sadly, Johnson’s job description isn’t the only one deemed harmful in the long run. OSHA has their hands full, improving work environments since the 1970’s. However, accidents still happen but it’s important that workers exercise caution, and that companies take responsibility and look out for their employees.
Keep Reading: A potentially cancer-causing chemical is sprayed on much of America’s produce. How high is exposure near you?
- “He was drenched in a weed-killer made by Monsanto in a workplace accident. then he was diagnosed with cancer | CBC documentaries. CBC News. Vanessa Caldwell. September 15, 2022.