SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A retired school groundskeeper dying of lymphoma told a California jury Monday he wouldn’t have used Monsanto’s Roundup weed killer had he known it causes cancer, in the first-ever case to go to trial accusing the agrichemical company of hiding Roundup’s risks to safeguard its extraordinary profits.
“I never would’ve sprayed that product on school grounds or around people if I knew it would cause them harm,” DeWayne Johnson testified in San Francisco County Superior Court. “It’s unethical, it’s wrong. People don’t deserve that.”
Johnson, 46, sued Monsanto in 2016 after being diagnosed with a cutaneous form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma called mycosis fungoides that caused cancerous lesions to develop over most of his body. He says he developed symptoms after he was twice drenched in Roundup while spraying schoolyards for his job with the school district in Benicia, a suburb of San Francisco.
He also claims Monsanto has known for decades that Roundup is carcinogenic but didn’t disclose it for fear of disrupting its $6.6 billion global business.
Key to the case is how long it takes cancer symptoms to manifest after exposure to a cancer-causing agent. Monsanto says it takes 20 years, eliminating its widely used herbicide as the cause of Johnson’s illness. Johnson says it can take mere months.
Johnson’s and Monsanto’s lawyers have presented dueling timelines for when Johnson developed his first symptom – a small rash on his knee.
His lawyers say the rash appeared in May 2014, after about two years of Roundup use. Monsanto’s lawyers say it appeared in September 2013, after 15 months of use.
But in deposition testimony by Johnson read in court Monday, Johnson said he first noticed the spot on his knee in September 2013, affirming Monsanto’s timeline.
The spot, documented that month in a hospital emergency room visit for a major car accident, was later diagnosed as squamous cell carcinoma, a cancer unrelated to mycosis fungoides and not linked with glyphosate in the scientific literature.
The testimony seemed a win for Monsanto, whose lawyers pointed out Friday that Johnson’s expert witness had said in a deposition that he would “have a tough time” linking Roundup use with non-Hodgkin lymphoma if a patient’s symptoms appeared less than one year after exposure.
Johnson’s 15-month exposure, however, leaves open the question of whether there was enough time for him to develop cancer from using the weed killer.
Although U.S. and European regulators have concluded that glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, is safe, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified it in 2015 as a probable human carcinogen, prompting a slew of lawsuits against Monsanto in the U.S., including Johnson’s.
The first such case against Monsanto to go to trial, Johnson’s case has been called a “bellwether” for the more than 400 similar lawsuits pending against the company in federal court in San Francisco. Those cases, consolidated before U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria, appear to be headed for trial following a recent ruling for the plaintiffs calling evidence linking glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma “weak” but admissible.
Sandra Edwards, Monsanto’s attorney with Farella, Braun & Martel, began her cross-examination of Johnson Monday by detailing the safety precautions he took while using Roundup.
She noted that Johnson went beyond the safety instructions on the label by wearing two layers of clothing underneath a full-body protective suit, chemically resistant gloves and boots, eye goggles and a paper mask. She said he also tried to minimize the amount of herbicide that drifted into his face by spraying it during optimal weather conditions.
“You were very careful approaching pesticides,” she said.
Once Johnson confirmed the details of his safety protocol, Edwards moved on to the September 2013 squamous cell carcinoma described in his medical records, at which point she read Johnson’s deposition testimony.
Her cross-examination – in which she also mentioned that Johnson twice failed a test to become a licensed pesticide applicator – appeared geared toward showing the jury that Roundup was not the cause of his cancer. His use of extra safety measures and his contracting cancer unassociated with glyphosate so soon after exposure suggested his illness was caused by something other than the product.
Earlier in the day, Johnson testified that Roundup drifted into his face on most days regardless of the steps he took to avoid it. He had no access to a shower at work, and it was at least six hours before he could get home each day during the summer spraying season to shower.
When his entire body became soaked in Roundup in an early-morning spraying accident despite his full-body protective gear, he wasn’t able to shower until evening, he said.
Johnson said the lesions were so painful, he couldn’t wear clothes or shoes without excruciating pain. The lesions disfigured his body and face, and people stared at him for fear he was contagious. For a time, he was too sick to leave the house.
“You hope you don’t become the boy in the bubble,” he said.
In an emailed statement, Monsanto Vice President of Global Strategy Scott Partridge said: “More than 800 scientific studies, the U.S. EPA, the National Institutes of Health and regulators around the world have concluded that glyphosate is safe for use and does not cause cancer. We have empathy for anyone suffering from cancer, but the scientific evidence clearly shows that glyphosate was not the cause.”
Prior to the diagnosis, Johnson was active, his wife Araceli Johnson testified, doing many of the household chores and spending his off-hours with her and their two young sons. One excels at sports, and the other wants to be a chemist.
“We had no worries,” she said, holding back tears. “Life was beautiful, simple.”