For three years Dewayne “Lee” Johnson began his workday at 5 am, spraying herbicides on the edges of school parking lots and sports fields in advance of students’ arrival. Even after he was first diagnosed with cancer in August 2014, according to his testimony in court, Johnson kept on spraying. He’d been told that Roundup, the weed killer he used, was virtually harmless. In fact, the person who certified him as an integrated pest manager assured him that Roundup “is safe enough to drink.”
Last week a San Francisco jury contradicted that claim by unanimously awarding Johnson $289 million in a cancer lawsuit filed against Roundup maker Monsanto. Johnson, 46, is the first of more than 4,000 plaintiffs facing off against the agrochemical giant on charges that the company’s product causes non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a common cancer that will likely kill nearly 20,000 people in the United States this year, according to the American Cancer Society.
The landmark ruling in Johnson’s case is the latest development in a decades-long scientific debate about the safety of the herbicide, which is applied to crops, lawns, golf courses, and gardens around the world. Since Roundup was released in 1974, Americans have sprayed more than 1.8 million tons of its main ingredient, glyphosate; worldwide, the figure stands at 9.4 million tons. Glyphosate is now so ubiquitous in the environment that residue has been reported in many popular foods, from cherries to cereal.
Johnson’s attorneys say the verdict is a “game changer” that could lead to similar victories for other plaintiffs. “Monsanto has taken a very hard line that these cases lack merit, and that there’s absolutely no evidence that Roundup causes cancer,” said Johnson’s lawyer Brent Wisner, with the California firm Baum Hedlund Aristei Goldman. “Now they have a $289 million verdict that says otherwise, and not only that—that Monsanto acted with malice in its conduct.”
Monsanto maintains that Roundup is safe, and cites “more then 800 scientific studies and reviews,” including from the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health, showing no link to cancer. Company Vice President Scott Partridge said in a statement that Monsanto will appeal the decision and continue to vigorously defend Roundup, “which has a 40-year history of safe use and continues to be a vital, effective, and safe tool for farmers and others.” Monsanto Media Communications Manager Charla Marie Lord added, “This was an initial verdict. There has been no settlement with Mr. Johnson.”