‘The leaf that didn’t die:’ Campus group hosts panel to discuss harmful effects of herbicides

Sabina Mahavni/Staff

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Herbicide-Free Cal hosted a panel discussion about the effects of herbicides, with speakers including Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the plaintiff in the recent Johnson v. Monsanto lawsuit, Wednesday evening.

About 120 people attended the event in Eshleman Hall. The panel included Johnson, UC Berkeley integrative biology professor Tyrone Hayes and Oakland activist Diane Williams. The planned fourth speaker, Kendra Klein, was not able to attend.

Johnson, a groundskeeper for the Benicia Unified School District, filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in 2016, claiming that exposure to the company’s herbicide caused him to develop Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The ruling called for Monsanto to pay Johnson $289 million, which was later reduced to $79 million, according to Herbicide-Free Cal co-founder Mackenzie Feldman. Feldman attended the trial with Johnson and said they have been friends ever since.

“What an inspiration he is to all of us,” Feldman said at the event, tearing up.

Herbicide-Free Cal co-founder Bridget Gustafson said she hopes attendees recognize that there are human lives behind these pesticides, referring to the groundskeepers and farmers most vulnerable to the chemicals’ adverse health effects.

“Seeing Mr. Johnson and really putting a face to the issue will hopefully really touch a lot of people and inspire them to take action,” Gustafson said. “Just generating a respect for groundskeepers and farmers and recognizing that they are putting themselves at risk just for us to have green grass.”

During the panel, Hayes spoke about research he conducted regarding atrazine — a widely used herbicide — and its effects on frogs. Frogs exposed to atrazine lose fertility, according to Hayes’ research, and a similar conclusion has been found in human health.

Hayes alleged at the event that Syngenta, an agrochemical company that produces atrazine, tried to influence his research and threatened him and his family.

Williams, who received her master’s degree in public health from UC Berkeley in 1980, noticed maintenance workers in the Oakland Unified School District spraying Monsanto’s Roundup product on plants.

“They messed with my plants,” Williams said at the event. “That was not going to work for me.”

When Williams contacted the district, she said they treated her and her colleagues like “bothersome women” and said the department is almost completely made up of males — a “ ‘good ol’ boys’ thing.”

At the event, Williams emphasized how herbicides are a women’s issue because they affect reproductive health, which is consistent with Hayes’ research. Williams also praised Johnson for his courage in court.

“You’ve got a dad here that is admired around the world for his strength, his courage in the face of a gigantic, mean-spirited corporation,” Williams said to Johnson’s sons sitting in the audience.

After the panel, Feldman and Gustafson allowed time for questions from both live attendees and viewers watching the event through a Facebook livestream. Many of the questions were directed at Johnson and dealt with his exposure to toxic chemicals, his experience in court, and how he found a legal team to support his case.

According to Johnson, Benicia Unified School District and other districts have stopped using the herbicide he used, emphasizing his goal to keep the conversation about herbicides alive.

“I’m the leaf that didn’t die,” Johnson said during the event.

Contact Sabina Mahavni at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sabina_mahavni.