The family that took on Monsanto: ‘They should’ve been with us in the chemo ward’

Apr 10, 2019 by

The Guardian

Exclusive: in his first interview since a jury ruled that Roundup caused his cancer, Edwin Hardeman talks about uncovering Monsanto’s secrets

Edwin Hardeman with his wife, Mary, at their home in Windsor, California, on 5 April 2019.
 Edwin Hardeman with his wife, Mary, at their home in Windsor, California, on 5 April 2019. Photograph: Brian L Frank/The Guardian

The words flashed on the screen and changed his life.

Edwin Hardeman had struggled through six rounds of chemotherapy in 2015 when he saw a TV report that said exposure to a popular weedkiller could lead to the exact cancer that was destroying his life. For the first time, the Californian had a possible explanation for his disease.

What he didn’t know then was that four years later, he would become the first person to prove in US federal court that Roundup had caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) – and that in the process, he would help uncover damning secrets about the manufacturer, Monsanto, and its influence in science and government.

“I hope this is a significant turnaround in Monsanto’s history,” Hardeman, 70, said on a recent morning in his Windsor living room, his first interview since a jury ruled that the company was liable for his cancer and owed him $80m in damages. “Maybe they will finally do the right thing.”

Monsanto, now owned by the German pharmaceutical corporation Bayer, has given no indication that it plans to change its ways. But Hardeman’s triumph, overcoming a judge that was openly hostile to his case, could impact tens of thousands of other cancer survivors and families in court – and could affect the agrochemical industry for years to come.

Becoming ‘the face’ of the fight

Edwin Hardeman and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller. They just wanted Monsanto to acknowledge the dangers – and potentially save other families from the horror they endured.

“This is something that was egregious to me. It was my personal battle and I wanted to take it full circle,” said Edwin, whose cancer is now in remission. “It’s been a long journey.”

Mary bristled when she thought about Monsanto’s continued defense of its chemical: “They should have been with us when we were in the chemo ward … not knowing what to do to relieve the pain.

“I get angry,” she added. “Very angry.”

Monsanto first put Roundup on the market in 1974, presenting the herbicide, which uses a chemical called glyphosate, as a breakthrough that was effective at killing weeds and safe. The product has earned the corporation billions in revenue a year, and glyphosate is now ubiquitous in the environment – with traces in waterfood and farmers’ urine.

Edwin Hardeman, who just won his federal case against Monsanto for the role Roundup played in his cancer, at his home in Windsor, California.
 Edwin Hardeman, who just won his federal case against Monsanto for the role Roundup played in his cancer, at his home in Windsor, California. Photograph: Brian L Frank/The Guardian

But research has repeatedly challenged Monsanto’s assertions that Roundup is safe, culminating in a key 2015 ruling by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (Iarc), which said glyphosate was “probably carcinogenic to humans”.

The Iarc classification opened the floodgates to litigation alleging that Roundup exposure caused their NHL, a cancer that affects the immune system.

Hardeman had frequently sprayed Roundup on his properties for nearly three decades up until 2012 – first in his home in a California coastal town called Gualala and later on his 56-acre property in the city of Santa Rosa, where he was controlling poison oak. It had never occurred to him that he was putting his health at risk: “It’s a product that is so widely used. It’s in all the home building stores. There’s no warning label.”

On Christmas Day in 2014, he discovered a swollen lymph node on his neck and was later diagnosed with stage three cancer.

Hardeman didn’t recognize the term glyphosate when he saw the news report about the Iarc ruling on TV. At that time, the chemotherapy side effects had devastated him – causing violent nausea, swelling that made his face unrecognizable and terrifying feelings of electric shocks jolting his body.

But when he realized that glyphosate was the main ingredient in Roundup and that research suggested it could be responsible for his form of NHL, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, it clicked: “It just hit me. There’s something going on here.”

He filed a lawsuit in February 2016. So did hundreds of other cancer survivors and families who lost loved ones, and many of the parallel suits were consolidated as one case under federal judge Vince Chhabria in San Francisco.

The judge selected Hardeman to be first – the so-called “bellwether” trial, meaning it would be the official test case that would inform future litigation and potentially impact settlements for others.

It was a lot of pressure.

“Learning I was going to be the plaintiff, the one, the face of the … litigation, was a shock,” he said.

Sitting in their living room on a quiet suburban street in Sonoma county, California’s wine country, the couple of 44 years said they were so averse to attention that they didn’t even tell close relatives about the lawsuit throughout their years-long fight, with Mary’s siblings in Ireland, her home country, only learning of the case through recent headlines.

But before he and Mary took the stand and had their photos splashed across news sites, the California litigation was already making waves around the globe. That’s because, despite Monsanto’s best efforts, the judge ordered the unsealing of key internal company documents that emerged during discovery – records which, for the first time, revealed Monsanto’s conduct behind closed doors.

Uncovering Monsanto’s strategy: ‘I was appalled’

The unsealed emails and documents suggested that Monsanto had an aggressive PR strategy for years that involved attacking negative research and ghostwriting and pushing favorable studies.

In one email, a Monsanto executive advised others in the company to be cautious about how they describe the safety of the product, warning: “You cannot say that Roundup is not a carcinogen … we have not done the necessary testing on the formulation to make that statement.”

Edwin and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller.
 Edwin and his wife, Mary, never expected that they would become de facto leaders of the federal court fight against the world’s most widely used weedkiller. Photograph: Brian Frank/The Guardian

Monsanto officials also privately talked about the company writing science papers that would be officially authored by researchers, with one email saying: “We would be keeping the cost down by us doing the writing and they would just edit and sign their names.” The internal documents also shined a harsh light on Monsanto’s cozy relationship with US regulators and its media campaign to combat the Iarc ruling.

(The company has said it was open about its involvement in research.)

One executive eventually revealed that the company had a roughly $17m budget for PR and public affairs related to Iarc and glyphosate.

“I don’t think I realized the importance of my case unleashing an investigation into Monsanto’s archives, which nobody’s ever been able to do,” Hardeman said.

The records helped Dewayne “Lee” Johnson, the first person to take on Monsanto in a Roundup trial in state court, win his historic victory last year, with a jury saying the corporation had “acted with malice” and was responsible for his cancer.

“I was just so appalled by Monsanto’s conduct,” Hardeman said, recalling how the company never returned the phone calls of Johnson, a former school groundskeeper who is terminally ill.

While the state court verdict boded well for Hardeman, he soon faced an unexpected roadblock that felt potentially insurmountable: Chhabria barred Hardeman’s lawyers from discussing anything about Monsanto’s conduct and also restricted the plaintiffs from providing the jury with basic information about Hardeman’s life.

The judge said the first phase of the trial should be strictly about science and whether Roundup caused cancer and went so far as to issue a $500 sanction against Aimee Wagstaff, Hardeman’s lawyer, for violating his orders. The judge also blocked her from introducing Mary to the jury and said the attorneys couldn’t even show a photo of Hardeman during closing statements.

“It was really hard to take and watch,” Hardeman said, recounting Chhabria’s attacks on his lawyer.

Hardeman still won.

The unusual and severe limitations made the message of the victory all the more powerful, Wagstaff said in an interview: “We were forced, over our objections, to argue just the science. Any argument by Bayer or Monsanto that this was a sympathetic jury to Mr Hardeman … is just not supported by the facts.”

Mary, who was home sick the day the jury announced, first saw the verdict on Twitter before her husband could break the news: “I let out a scream. It’s a wonder one of my neighbors didn’t come in.”

With the cancer science proven, Hardeman’s legal team was finally allowed to present evidence and arguments about Monsanto’s “despicable” and “reckless” behavior – and that was a success, too. The jury ruled Monsanto was negligent and owed him $80m in damages.

Within minutes of the final verdict, a Bayer spokesperson issued a response: The company would appeal.

‘I worry about the younger generation’

In US federal court, there are around 1,200 plaintiffs with similar Roundup cancer cases – and roughly 11,000 nationwide. Despite two jury rulings saying Roundup causes cancer, the corporation’s defense has not changed: Roundup is safe for use.

“We continue to believe strongly in the extensive body of reliable science that supports the safety of Roundup and on which regulators around the world continue to base their own favorable assessments,” a Bayer spokesperson told the Guardian. “Our customers have relied on these products for more than 40 years and we are gratified by their continued support.”

Bayer, which has faced backlash from investors and a share price drop in the wake of the Roundup controversy, could be pushed to negotiate a massive settlement with plaintiffs following Hardeman’s victory.

Hardeman said the very least the company could do is warn consumers: “Give us a chance to decide whether we want to use it or not … Have some compassion for people.”

Hardeman said it also disturbed him that Bayer and Monsanto still have not done their own study on the carcinogenicity of Roundup, even after all these years. (Monsanto has said the company has gone beyond what was required in testing glyphosate exposure risks.)

“I worry about the younger generation,” Hardeman said. “Why haven’t you tested this product? Why, why, why? You’ve got the money. Are you afraid of the answer?”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *