Prove your humanity

Last week, a Philadelphia jury awarded a $175 million verdict in favor of a man who said the weedkiller Roundup caused his cancer. On Tuesday, a jury in California ordered Bayer — which acquired Roundup manufacturer Monsanto in 2018 — to pay $322 million in damages in a case brought by a man with a similar story.

Cary Gillam headshot

Courtesy of Carey Gillam

Investigative journalist Carey Gillam has written extensively about Monsanto’s weedkiller glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. Her book, “The Monsanto Papers,” is centered on Lee Johnson, who was exposed to the chemical at work, got cancer, and sued. 

Gillam will be speaking at a Women for a Healthy Environment event in Pittsburgh on November 9th. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with her about Johnson’s case and its legacy.

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: What was revolutionary about Johnson’s 2018 case and his story?

Carey Gillam: We now have had over 100,000 people in the United States sue Monsanto, which is actually now a unit of the German company Bayer AG. But Lee was the first person to take this question to court as to whether or not Roundup – in Lee’s case, it was a chemical called Ranger Pro, but also made by Monsanto, also based on the active ingredient, glyphosate.

He was the first person to go to trial claiming that exposure caused him to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He also claimed, very importantly, that Monsanto knew of the risks, but had worked very hard to hide this from the public and from regulators. And of course, he ended up winning a $289 million jury verdict in that case. So it was quite historic and it made headlines around the world. 

Kara Holsopple: You mentioned there have been other litigants since then, but what’s happened since the case? Did it make a difference in how Monsanto was viewed and how it practiced business? 

Carey Gillam: It really did have an impact. The trial began in June of 2018, which was the exact same month that the Monsanto shareholders sold the company to Bayer. So Bayer was the ownership group when the verdict came down in August of 2018. When the jury award was announced, Bayer’s stock price plummeted and roughly 40 percent of their market cap was wiped out immediately. The shareholders could see the writing on the wall. They knew this was just the first of many, many thousands of cases. 

The company has agreed to pay at least about $12 billion in settlements to plaintiffs in the United States, even though many plaintiffs are not settling and continuing to go to trial. And it also led the company to say that they would remove glyphosate products from the U.S. consumer market starting this year. They will not stop selling it to farmers, or to cities, so we still expect very widespread use of glyphosate. 

Many countries have looked to ban or limit the use of glyphosate. Mexico is one right now. The US State Department and other officials are working with Bayer to try to convince Mexico not to do that. They’ve threatened trade sanctions against Mexico if they do ban glyphosate. So there’s a lot going on just around this chemical and a lot of it was triggered by the findings that came out in the litigation. 

Kara Holsopple: You’ve written about this in both of your books – what are some of the strategies Monsanto used over the years to get around regulation and steer the story of its products like Roundup? 

Carey Gillam: There are so many tactics that the company employed and many of them were really perfected by the tobacco industry, and have been used by the oil and gas industry. They’ve been documented by other investigative journalists in covering other industries over time. It’s very much a playbook. 

The company paid out millions of dollars to set up front groups. Basically, these are organizations that exist to look like they are legitimate, independent scientific organizations or think tanks or something that doesn’t really have anything to do with the companies they’re secretly taking money from.

Right now we’re relying very heavily on corporate research to tell us what is safe and what is not safe. We need more independent science and we need more integrity in our regulatory agencies for sure. 

Then they put out attack pieces on scientists or journalists. They work to discredit any science that comes out linking the chemical to disease. They corrupt research. The company paid out money to editors of scientific journals. They tried to control who was on the scientific advisory panel to the EPA.

They most notoriously ghostwrote scientific papers to be published in the literature that said that their chemicals and glyphosate-based herbicides were completely safe and did not cause cancer. 

Kara Holsopple: Monsanto is not alone among chemical companies in this kind of manipulation of science and media. You’ve written about DuPont and Syngenta.

What is or could the Biden administration be doing to protect the safety of Americans when it comes to the use of chemicals and pesticides? Has the government made any strides?

Carey Gillam: Every administration and probably most strenuously during the Obama administration, our leadership has told us that they are going to clean up scientific corruption in our regulatory bodies because scientific corruption within our Environmental Protection Agency is well known, well documented, well established.

We’ve had whistleblowers over many, many years come forward. Scientists who work for the EPA come out and say, ‘Our work is being censored. We’re trying to warn the public about cancer risks and other things that are associated with these chemicals we’re supposed to be regulating, including glyphosate, but we are being censored by EPA management at the behest of the chemical industry.’ 

I think the problem is just so deeply entrenched in Washington, where big money, very powerful companies, hold great sway with our lawmakers. We really just need a very systemic change.

Overall, we probably need to start funding independent research to a greater degree because right now we’re relying very heavily on corporate research to tell us what is safe and what is not safe. We need more independent science and we need more integrity in our regulatory agencies for sure. 

Kara Holsopple: What do you think is the most misunderstood aspect of pesticide manufacturing or use? 

Carey Gillam: A lot of people will say, well, you’re confusing a weedkiller with a pesticide. They are two different things. They’re not two different things. A pesticide is an umbrella term used by regulators. For legal and regulatory purposes ito encompasses insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc.

The companies that make synthetic pesticides like glyphosate, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, and dicamba, 2,4-D, commonly used these chemicals during warfare. When we weren’t really waging war anymore like we were in Vietnam with Agent Orange, they needed a new application and they convinced garmers and pretty much everybody else that these chemicals were needed to feed the world. 

The impact of this huge increase in pesticide use over the last 30 or 40 years has just wreaked havoc on biodiversity, on our insect population, and our bird population. They’ve impacted the health of the soil, the microorganisms in the soil that are necessary to grow nutritious crops.

And many of these pesticides have been shown to impact our health, not only causing cancer, but there’s documented evidence that many of them cause neurodevelopmental harm.

We just banned chlorpyrifos recently, which had been used for decades, a chemical brought to us by Dow Chemical. Reproductive health, and fertility issues – all of these can be tied to pesticide exposure and the science is out there. But the chemical companies that manufacture and sell these are fighting very hard against that science.

Kara Holsopple: What got you interested in writing about chemicals and safety and why do you continue to pursue it? 

Carey Gillam: What got me interested was I was assigned to do it by Reuters. And actually, initially, I thought this would be the most boring job ever. I had been covering the banking industry, and I thought that was fascinating. And then I was asked to start covering agriculture and these big agrochemical companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Dow, and Syngenta. And I’ve done it now for 20-some years.

I’ve spent a lot of time with farmers being out in their fields and ridden on tractors. I just really tried to become immersed in this industry and really understand it and read the science, get to know the scientists, and watch the trends as they emerged. 

We all eat food, all of us. And we drink water and we breathe the air. And we all have a stake in this. And when you see the impacts and you see how hard the industry is working to hide those impacts, you just have to do your best to try to bring the information to light.

Carey Gillam is an investigative journalist, and author of  “The Monsanto Papers”  and “Whitewash- The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer and the Corruption of Science.” She is a contributor for The Guardian, and is managing editor of The New Lede, a journalism initiative of the Environmental Working Group.