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What Killed Jack McCall?
Standing on the ridge overlooking her coastal California farm, Teri McCall sees her late husband, Jack, nearly everywhere. There, atop the highest hill, is where the couple married in 1975 — two self-described "hippies" who knew more about how to surf than to farm. Midway up the hill, on a lush plateau surrounded by the lemon, avocado, and orange trees Jack planted, sits the 800-square-foot house the then-young Vietnam War veteran built for his bride and a family that grew to include two sons and a daughter. One of those sons now lives there with his own wife and small son. Solar panels Jack set up in a sun-drenched stretch of grass help power the farm's irrigation system.
Down there, nestled in a velvety green valley, is the century-old farmhouse Jack and Teri made their home after Jack's parents died. The two-story white Victorian boasts a front porch wide enough for rocking chairs and potted flowers and for friends to gather. Jack and Teri spent countless quiet nights on that porch, watching stars light up the sky, which is always so dark out here in the countryside. Over the front door is a stained-glass window Jack installed that features a heart and flowers. Inside, a plaque etched with the word "Blessed" hangs over the bedroom door.
Teri was only seventeen when she met twenty-three-year-old Jack just after he returned from Vietnam. He had been a first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne Division and received both a Bronze Star and a Distinguished Flying Cross for his service. When Teri saw him, though, he didn't look like a soldier but more like a big kid, laughing and playing Frisbee with friends. She remembers being almost instantly smitten by his rugged good looks and easy smile. It took five years before they became more than friends, and then forty years passed all too quickly.
"Literally hundreds of times a day, something reminds me of him," McCall tells me as I stand beside her on the ridge one bright spring morning a few months after Jack's death. Her tears start to flow. "That's part of why it's so hard to believe ... to know that even if I search the whole world, look everywhere, I can't find him now." She shakes her head. "So hard to believe I can never see him again."
Anthony "Jack" McCall, age sixty-nine, died on December 26, 2015, after a painful and perplexing battle with an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of cancer that forms in the lymphatic system and can appear almost anywhere in the body. The loss is certain, fixed forever in his family's heartbreak. But questions about why and how he was stricken — a man who never smoked, who stayed fit, and who had no history of cancer in his family — swirl around his use of the popular weed killer Roundup and its active ingredient, glyphosate.
McCall shunned pesticide use on his farm, except for Roundup. He didn't like the idea of synthetic chemicals floating around the orchard, where he grew apricots, peaches, plums, and apples, or near his precious avocados. But Roundup was marketed as having extremely low toxicity, nothing that a small farmer like Jack needed to worry about. He would drive twenty to thirty miles from his farm, just outside the seaside village of Cambria, to Morro Bay, or often into San Luis Obispo, to buy his favorite weed killer. He would then apply it himself, spraying the pesticide all around the farm to beat back worrisome weeds. He even recommended Roundup to friends in the small Cambria community, telling them it was supposed to be much safer than alternatives and touting its effectiveness.
In fact, this chemical called glyphosate has for many years been the most widely used herbicide in the world, in part because ever since its introduction in 1974 it has been marketed as one of the safest of all pesticides ever brought to market. Its developer, Monsanto Company, and other companies that started selling glyphosate-based herbicides after Monsanto's patent expired have collected billions of dollars in global sales off the well-known consumer and agricultural mainstay for eradicating troublesome weeds. Declared to be as safe as table salt, Roundup and other glyphosate products became the remedy of choice for millions of consumers, farmers, gardeners, and groundskeepers around the globe. It has been a preferred choice for use in city parks and on school playgrounds and to keep golf courses weed free. Monsanto has also promoted its weed killer for use in zoos.
But the death of McCall, and the illnesses and deaths of other farmers and glyphosate users like him, have come amid revelations of a number of hidden dangers associated with the chemical, including links to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And what began as a trickle of worry has widened into a flood of outrage against Monsanto and the regulators who have deemed glyphosate safe. Soon after her husband's death, McCall's widow, Teri, joined a movement of thousands of people who are bringing wrongful death lawsuits against Monsanto — people from around the United States who claim that Roundup can cause cancer and that Monsanto has tried to cover up the risks.
As the fortieth anniversary of glyphosate's introduction to the market was notched in 2014, protests over its use mounted, not just in America but also abroad. By early 2016, protesters in the United States, Europe, South America, and elsewhere were calling on regulators to restrict or ban glyphosate, citing scientific research linking it to a range of health and environmental ills. Regulators and private organizations started analyzing food, water, air, and soil for glyphosate residues, and fears about use of glyphosate on genetically engineered crops gave added ammunition to a grassroots groundswell calling for required labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The evidence of glyphosate's dangers began building soon after the herbicide was introduced, but it wasn't until Monsanto's commercialization of genetically engineered crops designed to be sprayed directly with glyphosate — so-called Roundup Ready crops — that glyphosate use took off and, with it, signs of trouble.
The lawsuits began after a team of World Health Organization (WHO) cancer experts announced, in March 2015, that they had determined glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen. That team, from WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), said a review of many scientific studies showed that glyphosate had a positive association with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). This association was noteworthy because incidences of NHL had spiked over the past several decades, making it the tenth most common cancer worldwide, with nearly 386,000 new cases diagnosed in 2012. The statistics are especially concerning for those living in North America, where incidence rates are highest.
Many scientists have been studying the rise in NHL seen over the past forty years, especially for farmworkers exposed to pesticides. And many have warned that glyphosate and Roundup could be contributing to a range of diseases and ailments. IARC's work did not constitute solid proof that glyphosate causes NHL or other health problems, of course, but it did offer authoritative analysis of research examining correlations between the pesticide and disease. The IARC team said their conclusions were based on "sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity" in studies of lab animals, "limited evidence" in humans, and evidence that glyphosate "caused DNA and chromosomal damage in human cells."
"We should all minimize our use as much as possible," said Professor Lin Fritschi, an epidemiologist affiliated with Curtin University in Australia who specializes in studying occupational causes of cancer. Fritschi was part of the IARC team that evaluated glyphosate. "The people most at risk are people who use glyphosate a lot, such as farmers and gardeners, and they are the ones who should try and reduce their use," she said.
In February 2016, Teri McCall became one of many people to act upon those warnings by taking their claims of glyphosate-related illnesses and deaths to court. Though Jack's death certificate blamed metastatic large cell lymphoma for his passing, his family believes the actual culprit was the chemical.
"Roundup was supposed to be safe," Teri's lawsuit states. "The truth, however, is far more insidious. The active chemical in Roundup, glyphosate, is a carcinogen, and Monsanto has known this fact for decades."
Legal observers believe that the roughly 1,000 cancer claims filed between 2015 and early 2017 mark what is to become a mountain of legal actions targeting Monsanto and Roundup. Plaintiffs in several of the lawsuits make the same allegation, that Monsanto spent decades covering up signs of harm associated with the weed killer, even promoting falsified data. Monsanto "knew or should have known ... that exposure to Roundup and specifically, its active ingredient glyphosate, could result in cancer and other severe illnesses and injuries," plaintiffs claim. Monsanto has denied the allegations.
Many of the cases were centralized in federal court in San Francisco, to be handled by one judge in what promises to be a long and winding battle that could take years to litigate. Monsanto says that it empathizes with anyone facing cancer but insists there is no reliable scientific evidence showing that exposure to glyphosate or Roundup branded products can cause cancer. But the team of lawyers representing the plaintiffs say that Monsanto knowingly failed to warn customers about many dangers Roundup posed for human health. The lawyers — and several scientists — contend that Roundup is more dangerous than glyphosate alone because of an added ingredient that Monsanto used for many years to help the glyphosate adhere to plants. Some research has shown that this added ingredient, polyethoxylated tallow amine (POEA), can be extremely damaging to human cells. Regulators did not require extensive safety tests on the combination of glyphosate and POEA, and Monsanto did little such testing, plaintiffs allege. But this "secret soup," the plaintiffs claim, can be deadly.
Internal e-mails and other documents obtained by the plaintiffs' attorneys during the first rounds of court-ordered discovery show how hard Monsanto has worked over the years to defend itself against safety concerns associated with Roundup. In some e-mails, company executives discussed ghostwriting favorable research manuscripts that would appear to be authored by acclaimed independent scientists. In others, executives discussed recruiting and paying experts who would lend credibility to Monsanto's claims of product safety; and in one, a Monsanto executive stated how "useful" a certain senior official of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could be in "glyphosate defense."
Court records show that same official went to work for Monsanto-related organizations almost immediately after retiring from the EPA. Taken together, the documents paint an alarming picture indicating that year after year, at crossroads after crossroads, when research raised concerns about glyphosate, Monsanto's response was to turn away from the warnings and work harder to promote more use of the chemical. EPA documents show that Monsanto even protested the worker safety rules the agency said needed to accompany glyphosate products, calling such cautionary requirements "unjustified." The company also resisted recommendations from an EPA toxicologist that the word "Danger" be used instead of "Warning" on Roundup labels.
Monsanto has argued that its internal communications taken individually do not accurately reflect the company's actions or intentions, and company attorneys tried to keep the documents sealed. But the federal judge overseeing the multidistrict litigation ruled that many could be made part of the public court file.
Mother, grandmother, and former coffee farmer Christine Sheppard hopes she lives long enough to see the outcome of her lawsuit against the company. Though her NHL was in remission when we last spoke, Sheppard's life changed irreparably when she was stricken with a vicious version of the cancer, which would steal not only her health but also the idyllic retirement she and her husband, Kenneth, had carved out for themselves on a coffee plantation in Hawaii. She was a healthy and happy forty-seven-year-old working as director of marketing for a software company, and her husband, slightly older, was an engineering manager at a hardware company, when the two decided they'd had enough of the fast pace of the high-tech industry and they'd try their hand at farming. The couple left their home in San Diego, California, and plowed their hefty savings into a five-acre former coffee farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the Kona coffee-growing region. They moved to the farm in 1996.
"The weeds were so high that we could hardly wade through them, and the coffee was trees instead of bushes, tall with many branches twisted together," Sheppard recalled. To tackle the weeds, the Sheppards strapped on backpack herbicide applicators and walked through the groves, spraying Roundup generously. They repeated this routine at different points throughout the years to keep weeds at bay.
"We were just carrying on the practices that were common in the area," she said. "Roundup was standard for the coffee-growing region and was recommended by the University of Hawaii's agricultural agent there. The department of agriculture would put on conferences on how to spray it so it didn't hurt the coffee trees. We were told it was safe enough to drink and we didn't need to wear protective gear."
For many years, the Sheppards felt they were living their dream. They learned the coffee business quickly, built a website to market their fresh-roasted beans online, and sold the coffee to visitors who toured their farm. Sheppard became so involved that she was elected president of the area's Kona Coffee Council, and her husband acted as director of education, organizing seminars and workshops for other farmers. The farm also came to be an animal sanctuary of sorts as the couple brought home a menagerie of dogs, cats, donkeys, and goats. "Our life on the farm was wonderful," Sheppard recalled.
They were making a plan to transition their coffee to organic, purely as a marketing move, according to Sheppard, when her health took a sudden and worrisome turn. One leg swelled and throbbed, she was frequently fatigued, and she began having night sweats. At first she thought her symptoms marked the onset of menopause; then she thought she might have blood poisoning. A doctor prescribed blood thinners, to no avail. Subsequent tests revealed the startling diagnosis: Sheppard had stage 4 large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma, with roughly a 10 percent chance of survival.
It was August 2003, and she immediately started on months of chemotherapy. By the summer of 2004, the couple had sold the farm, which they could no longer manage, and moved back to California for expensive and exhausting experimental treatments. The treatments ultimately were successful enough to move Sheppard into remission in 2005. She's been left with lasting neuropathy, which causes severe foot and hand pain; loss of balance; and a host of other ailments that make it difficult for her to get through a day without medications. And the couple's savings have been exhausted on medical bills. For years, Sheppard said, she would "beat on the walls and wonder 'why me?'" — until the spring of 2015, when she read about Roundup's ties to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
"My anger is still pretty raw," Sheppard told me. "The way Monsanto is reacting, their efforts to discredit things, are typical of what the tobacco industry did when information was coming out about links to lung cancer. I know they're going to fight hard. And they've got deep pockets."
Monsanto faces a long list of people who attribute their cancers to Roundup. Texan Joselin Barrera, a daughter of migrant farmworkers, believes growing up in an environment where the pesticide was regularly sprayed gave her non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Elias de la Garza, a former migrant farmworker and landscaper, also from Texas, similarly claimed his NHL was due to Roundup exposure. Judi Fitzgerald, a horticultural worker diagnosed with leukemia in 2012, also filed suit. California sod farm worker Brenda Huerta, who was diagnosed with NHL in 2013, also sued Monsanto for allegedly hiding the dangers of glyphosate.
John Sanders worked for thirty years managing weeds in orange and grapefruit groves in Redlands, California, before he developed NHL. Frank Tanner owned a landscaping business in California and started using Roundup in 1974; he was diagnosed with NHL after years of spraying glyphosate. Both are suing.
Excerpted from "Whitewash"
Copyright © 2017 Carey Gillam.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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