The Monsanto Papers: Getting dirty, Part 1

The following is Part 1 of an excerpt from The Monsanto Papers, a new book by journalist Carey Gillam.

The book tells the true life tale of Lee Johnson, a California groundskeeper who was diagnosed with terminal cancer he alleged was caused by his exposure to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides.

Sunlight had not yet started to streak its way across the Northern California landscape as 41-year-old Lee Johnson pushed himself up out of bed. In the darkness, he pulled on a pair of jeans and a hooded shirt bearing a patch from the Benicia Unified School District. Down the hall, Lee’s wife, Araceli, prodded their two young sons into wakefulness. There was no hint that Lee’s life was about to take a tragic turn.

Rising early was not just a habit; it was a requirement of Lee’s job as a groundskeeper for the school district, which rotated roughly five thousand students through its mix of elementary, middle, and high schools. Lee had been in his current position for only a year but enjoyed a broad job description and a five-figure salary that helped his family claw its way out of near homelessness and into a middle-class lifestyle. They had recently moved into a split-level two-bedroom house in what the young family considered an affluent neighborhood in the city of Vallejo. The beige stucco was not really theirs—just a rental—but it felt like home. The kitchen boasted black marble countertops and maplewood floors, and a small children’s park was just a few paces from the front door. Lee loved the tall, leafy trees that lined the streets and the grassy backyard, where a family of squirrels cackled as they chased each other through the branches.

Lee’s income, combined with what Araceli earned from various part-time jobs, provided enough for an occasional vacation with the kids and a sense of contentment that Lee had long craved. He still wrote music and dreamed of selling and performing his songs, but his focus was on his family, specifically on being as present and engaged with his sons as possible. He did not want them growing up feeling his absence, the way he had with his own father. Lee had a tattoo inscribed on his forearm reading “Blessings for the righteous.” The blessings for his family had finally started to flow, Lee believed.

Hazardous chemicals 

lee Johnson Monsanto

The work for the school district wasn’t easy, but Lee knew that as long as he kept working hard, he could count on a long career with a growing income. He didn’t mind starting before dawn or working outside in rain or shine, cold or heat. He found the work satisfying, knowing that every day he made the school surroundings a little cleaner, neater, or safer.

Whether it was trapping rats and raccoons, painting walls, installing irrigation pipe, or applying insecticides to wipe out armies of ants and herbicides to kill off invasive plants, Lee was one of the school district’s go-to guys for getting dirty work done. Supervisors had just recently lauded his performance in a written review, highlighting Lee’s “positive successful approach” and his “remarkable ability to grasp all aspects of his responsibilities.”

On this day—a day he would later be forced to repeatedly recount to doctors and lawyers and to a courtroom full of spectators—Lee’s task was supposed to be fairly simple. He would mix up a fifty-gallon drum of weed killer and then spray the concoction over a hilly area between two schools that held baseball and soccer fields. The Benicia district, like many in the United States, did not want its school grounds to appear unkempt, and doing his job right meant Lee needed to stay one step ahead of common California weeds, such as “cheeseweed,” which could grow more than two feet tall if left alone.

He did this often, mixing and applying products with macho- sounding brand names such as Roundup and Ranger Pro. Developed by the giant chemical corporation Monsanto Company, the brands were top sellers, largely because the company advertised them as being much safer than rival products, nontoxic to people even though the chemicals were deadly to plants. Some marketers even advised that the Monsanto herbicides were “safe enough to drink.” Despite the safety slogans, Lee was wary of these and other chemicals, and he always made sure to arrive at work early enough to don heavy protective gear before beginning a morning of spraying. He also liked to get the wet mixtures on the grounds well before the children would be out playing sports or enjoying recess.

This morning, the couple spoke few words during their predawn commute, and Araceli let Lee out at the highway exit closest to the district offices rather than making the extra turn. She did this often; it was only a short twenty-minute walk for Lee, and he didn’t mind. It was better than riding his bike to catch a bus to work, as he did on days when she couldn’t or wouldn’t drive him.

Lee hopped out of the car, told his boys a quick goodbye, and started the mile-and-a-half walk to his work site at a brisk pace, eager to get the day going. He fast-walked past an aging automotive shop, a liquor store, and a Chinese restaurant and then cut behind a community center to reach the school district office.

Several white district pickup trucks waited there, their beds filled with green hoses, brooms, rubber trash containers, plastic buckets, and other tools of the trade. A rectangular metal building stored the supplies the school district’s maintenance workers needed. And across the parking lot was a low metal trailer where workers clocked in and out and ate their lunches. One small storage shed stood apart from the rest of the buildings. A sign hanging on the door read “Danger, Hazardous Chemicals.”

Lee was responsible for supervising two coworkers who helped him spray pesticides on school grounds, assigning areas for the guys to treat and making sure they wore their protective equipment. The gear was extensive and included white coveralls with elastic cuffs, chemical-resistant rubber gloves and boots, and heavy goggles.

“The juice”

Once they had their jumpsuits on, Lee and his team mixed up their weed-killing chemicals for the day. Pulling from large drums of Ranger Pro, Lee and his team mixed the concentrate with water and antifoaming agents before transferring what they called “the juice” into spray tanks. Lee also mixed up enough to fill a 50-gallon tank that was mounted in the back of his work truck. The tank had a motorized engine and was connected to a long hose and a three-foot spray wand that could push the chemicals over a bigger area faster than could a man carrying a backpack sprayer.

The assignment was to spray weeds around an elementary school, including on a hilly area lying between that school and an adjacent high school. Lee loaded the full tank onto the district truck and drove the ten minutes from the maintenance shed to the school, tuning the truck radio to his favorite jazz station as he drove. When he arrived, he decided to start at the top of the hill and work his way down. Hopping out of the cab, he grabbed the hose reel and proceeded to unwind the 250-foot hose, sweeping the spray wand back and forth as he walked down the hillside. As the sun rose, the day grew warm, but there was little wind meaning less spray would drift onto Lee’s face. It was a good day to spray, he thought. When he was about halfway down the hill, the hose was nearly fully extended, meaning Lee would have to move his truck if he was going to finish the job. He got back into the truck and drove slowly down the slope, not bothering to reel in the hose. He figured that once he was parked at the bottom, he could simply walk back up to the point where he’d left off and spray his way down the last half of the hill.

But just as Lee was slowing to a stop, he heard and felt a jolt from the bed of the truck where the tank full of weed killer rested. He threw open the door and saw that the hose, which had been dragging behind the truck, had somehow become caught in a wide crack in the asphalt. The tension had yanked the hose from its connection to the tank, and a fountain of amber-colored chemical was spewing into the air.

“Oh, shit!” Lee exclaimed, stricken with a fear that briefly froze him in place. He told himself he couldn’t panic; the situation could get serious very fast if he didn’t stop the toxic flow. He raced around to the back of the truck and clambered into the bed, propelling himself directly into the foul-smelling spray so that he could flip the red switch that shut down the tank motor. His mind was on the pump, but he was vaguely aware of being wet—soaked, in fact. His face, neck, and back felt as if a bucket of water had been poured over him. There wasn’t time to worry about that. Even without the motor to drive the pump, the fluid continued running out of the truck bed and onto the ground, making small streams down the hill and toward the property’s wastewater drain, which led into a nearby bay where people fished and children sometimes swam. Lee often spent lunch hours there, feeding the gulls and watching sailboats glide by. Letting toxic chemicals flow into the waterway could get him in trouble, Lee knew.

Grabbing a shovel he kept in the truck bed, Lee started piling dirt into a makeshift dam to sop up the wet mess, praying he could stop the flow before it escaped into the drains. The dirt worked like a charm, slowing and soaking up the leak. Lee then carefully reeled the hose back in before stripping off the now-drenched jumpsuit, which was designed to protect the wearer from the light drift of a normal spray job but was not much help for the dousing he had just experienced. Even the shirt he wore underneath the protective suit had become coated in the spray, so he shrugged that off too. He hurried back to the district maintenance shop, where he turned his attention to trying to scrub the chemicals off his body.

Lee spent the afternoon tending to other district chores and trying not to worry about the spray accident. He didn’t feel sick, and his smooth dark skin seemed unscathed by the errant chemical bath. Getting dirty was just part of the job, nothing to worry about, he told himself. That night, at home with Araceli and the kids, he didn’t even mention the accident. He knew in the back of his mind the chemicals were toxic, but he had also been told repeatedly that Monsanto’s products were the safest out there. He pushed the fears to the back of his mind and resolved not to let the incident upset him.

Tomorrow: Part 2

Monsanto Papers

Carey Gillam has spent more than 25 years reporting on corporate America. Her first book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, won the 2018 Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists, and was named an “Outstanding Book of the Year” by the 2018 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Gillam is currently Research Director for the non-profit consumer group U.S. Right to Know. Her new book is The Monsanto Papers: Deadly Secrets, Corporate Corruption, and One Man’s Search for Justice, published by Island Press.

Banner photo credit: Man operates a pesticide sprayer in Egypt. (Credit: USAID Egypt)