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Lee Johnson: The Man Behind the Glyphosate Landmark Trial

By Mackenzie Feldman on March 12, 2021   duration

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Carey Gillam’s groundbreaking new book, The Monsanto Papers, chronicles the story of Dewayne “Lee'' Johnson, a man who developed cancer after exposure to Monsanto’s glyphosate-based herbicide. Lee was the first person to challenge Monsanto over their herbicides in court and win; his case is a huge milestone that has set a precedent for future glyphosate trials. The impact has been felt around the world, as countries like Mexico and Germany have taken steps to ban glyphosate based-herbicides since the ruling. What is often missing from the coverage of Lee’s fight --despite it being a significant part of his story-- is how he is using his platform to advocate for an end to synthetic herbicide-use to protect groundskeepers and ensure that no one else has to endure what he is living through.

To provide some context: Lee was a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area. As part of his job, he was required to spray Ranger Pro, an herbicide manufactured by Monsanto (now Bayer since the acquisition in 2018), containing the active ingredient glyphosate. Glyphosate is a chemical classified by the World Health Organization as a probable carcinogen. Lee sprayed sports fields and school grounds, and notes that some days he would spray upwards of 150 gallons worth of toxic materials. He always wore PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and did everything in his power to exercise extreme caution. Unfortunately, he was unable to avoid occasional leaks and was drenched in the glyphosate-based product on multiple occasions when his equipment malfunctioned.

Following a tumultuous two years of chronic and acute exposures, Lee began to experience skin irritation and develop rashes. He contacted Monsanto to inquire if their products could have caused his recent skin issues, and despite their internal dialogue on the subject, they neglected to respond to his inquiry. After bouncing from doctor to doctor, Lee received his diagnosis: Mycosis Fungoides, a rare form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Driven by his suspicions that the herbicide was to blame for his diagnosis, Lee sued Monsanto. In a groundbreaking ruling, the jury found that exposure to the glyphosate-based herbicide, Ranger Pro, was a substantial factor in causing Lee’s cancer. Not only that, but they found that Monsanto failed to adequately warn consumers and users of their product of the risks. Therefore the jury found Monsanto guilty of acting with malice and oppression, awarding Lee a total of $289 million, which was later reduced to $20.5 million. There are now over 120,000 cases against Bayer/Monsanto, with many plaintiffs sharing similar stories to Lee’s. His landmark verdict was a monumental catalyst for these kinds of cases, adding power and validity to the lawsuits brought against Monsanto. Despite the 120,000 cases against Bayer/Monsanto and pending $10 billion settlement, glyphosate-based products can still be purchased at stores like Home Depot and Lowes, and the products continue to cause cancer in humans, harm soil health, and contribute to the insect apocalypse.

But that is not the end of Lee’s story. In fact, it is just the beginning. Although news outlets scrambled to cover Lee’s historic trial, often referring to him as the “dying man,” few have highlighted the ways in which Lee has continued his fight outside of the courtroom. After winning his case, Lee did not idly sit back. Rather, he stepped up. During the summer of 2019, Lee journeyed to Hawaii to team up with Re:wild Your Campus (RYC) and non-profit groups that form the Protect Our Keiki Coalition. The goal of the trip was to educate groundskeepers, policymakers, and the public about the importance of reducing synthetic pesticide/herbicide use. He met with prominent decision-makers, including the directors of Hawaii Parks and Recreations, Public Works, and Finance, as well as members on the Board of Education. He also spoke at a community meeting called by the Board of Education Chairwoman to discuss concerns about herbicide and pesticide use at schools. Parents submitted testimony urging a reevaluation of herbicide use on public school grounds, and Lee spoke about his experience and urged Hawaii’s public school system to take action. Thanks to Lee’s activism and the broader coalition of activists and organizers he partnered with, Superintendent Christina Kishimoto banned herbicides at Hawaii public schools and called for the immediate removal of all herbicides stored on school grounds. This monumental win was a critical step towards ensuring the safety of students, educators, groundskeepers and the wider communities that surround schools - exactly what we at RYC strive for.

Lee has also stepped up by taking on an advisory role with Re:wild Your Campus. Through sharing his story with our Student Fellows, advising our staff, and working closely with our Executive Director, Mackenzie Feldman, Lee continues his fight against Bayer/Monsanto. Lee has spoken on panels hosted by Re:wild Your Campus and also wrote a letter to the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, urging him to take action to protect groundskeepers, students and staff in the California public school system.

“I am asking you, Mr Thurmond, will you follow Hawaii, the University of California, municipalities across California and your own professional opinion in considering the ban of synthetic herbicides and pesticides on all K-12 school campuses across California?” -Lee Johnson on a panel at UC Berkeley put on by Herbicide-Free Cal.

Every time we succeed in getting a school to test organic land care methods, reduce herbicide use, and eliminate glyphosate, we acknowledge that Lee has played a part in achieving that win. Although it would have been easy for him to leave the fight after winning his trial, Lee has continued to advocate against the use of toxic, synthetic herbicides to protect other groundskeepers from the inexplicable harm associated with Monsanto/Bayer’s products. Lee remains a key source of inspiration for our RYC staff, students, and wider community - we fight for Lee, and for others whose health, safety, and quality of life has been compromised by agrochemical companies.

As people continue to discuss Lee’s historic fight against Monsanto, it is important that we uplift his current work. Although Lee may be seen as a “dying man,” he is a man that lives each and every day to the fullest, a good reminder to us all to use our one precious life to stand up for what we believe in.

P.S….Lee makes amazing, powerful music about his experience. Check it out here!

About the author

Mackenzie Feldman

Mackenzie Feldman is an environmental activist from Honolulu, Hawai'i. She is the Founder and Director of Re:wild Your Campus (formerly known as Herbicide-Free Campus). Mackenzie worked with a coalition to ban herbicides from every public school in the state of Hawai'i, and led a campaign that resulted in the entire University of California system going glyphosate-free. Mackenzie received the 2019 Brower Youth Award for her work and is a 2022 Rachel Carson Council Fellow and a 2023 Walking Softer Young Leaders Awardee. She is also co-author, with her mother Kathy, of the book Groundbakers, which was published in Fall 2022.

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