With unanimous vote, City Commission directs staff to stop using weed killers with glyphosate in city parks

Representatives of Non Toxic Sarasota call for a different alternative than the one recommended by staff, citing concerns about primary chemical in it

This graphic shows the six sites were city staff tested different weed-killing products. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Following repeated pleas from the public last year, the Sarasota City Commission asked that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department staff to undertake research into a alternatives to products containing glyphosate, which has been linked to cancer.

The city commissioners heard more pleas from the public during their regular meeting on Oct. 19, as speakers expressed dissatisfaction with the alternatives staff had used in test plots to determine the effectiveness of those other products.

Nonetheless, on a unanimous vote, the commissioners directed staff to switch to a relatively new product called Cheetah Pro, in combination with another product called SafeGuard. They also asked staff to explore yet more options, and they agreed to a suggestion from City Manager Tom Barwin that he could address with members of a scientific board on which he serves the distinctions between glyphosate and a similarly named chemical in Cheetah Pro.

Commissioner Liz Alpert made the motion after slightly more than an hour on the agenda item, which included a staff presentation, board discussion and the speakers’ remarks. Vice Mayor Shelli Freeland Eddie seconded the motion.

Candie Pedersen, general manager of the Parks and Recreation Department, first offered the presentation about the findings of a staff initiative that entailed the testing of three alternatives to glyphosate at six locations. The sites were selected, she explained, so staff would be able to see the results of using the different products in “a variety of conditions we deal with.” The sites had different soil types, different chemical balances in the soil, and varied moisture and hydrology attributes, and they were located in a mix of areas where the products could be affected by numerous other factors, such as salt spray, she added.

The project was conducted over four consecutive weeks, Pedersen noted.

Staff used Roundup Quick Pro, along with Cheetah Pro, Cheetah Pro combined with SureGuard, and an organic product called Whack Out Weeds (marketed as EcoMIGHT), Pedersen continued. She chose the last one, she pointed out, because “it had the most positive results that I could find online and through calls to other agencies.”

At the end of the initiative, she told the board members, the best weed killer proved to be Cheetah Pro in combination with SureGuard.

However, Jerry Fogle, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, noted that using the two products together would cost the city an estimated $21,176.29 per year, compared to $4,483.10 for Roundup Quick Pro.

This chart in the Parks and Recreation Department report on its study provides details about the cost of the various treatments. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Commissioner Hagen Brody was the first to ask Pedersen for clarification about whether the Cheetah Pro contains glyphosate.

“No, sir,” she responded. Nonetheless, she added, it does carry a “Caution” label.

One speaker — city resident Sharon Juraszek — later alleged that the principal chemical in Cheetah Pro — glufosinate-ammonium — “is a form of glyphosate.”

In response to a commission query on that point, Pedersen maintained, “They’re two completely different chemicals.”

(A March 2010 article The Sarasota News Leader found online, which was published by AgFax.com, quotes a University of Illinois Extension weed specialist, Aaron Hager. “[W]hile glyphosate and glufosinate may sound alike and share certain similarities,” Hager wrote, they have different properties and are not interchangeable. Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie read from that article during the commission meeting.)

Juraszek, one of the leaders of a community group called Non Toxic Sarasota, also criticized the staff comparisons initiative. “You have not tested less harmful pesticides,” she told the commissioners. “Cheetah Pro is toxic.”

Another speaker, Anya Adams, who lives outside the city, complained about SureGuard, noting that that an information sheet about the product says, “It’s extremely dangerous to wildlife” and can delay organ development in children.

Adams asked why Fogle and his staff did not contact the City of Miami, which has stopped using products with glyphosate.

Parks and Recreation Director Jerry Fogle answers a question during a remote City Commission meeting in August. File image

Fogle had talked earlier of staff’s outreach to a number of municipalities in the region, including the Cities of North Port, Venice, Bradenton, St. Petersburg and Tampa.

“The only city that we can find that stopped using glyphosate,” Fogle told the commissioners, “was the City of Miami. … They’re using blow torches on the weeds,” he pointed out, “which we’re definitely not going to [do].”

Moreover, Fogle explained, staff read a report about a study undertaken by the National Recreation and Park Association, which said that more than 50 cities and individual park systems in the United States had banned or restricted the use of herbicides containing glyphosate. Nonetheless, he continued, most municipalities indicated to the association that they would continue using glyphosate because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not declared the product carcinogenic.

(One speaker during the Oct. 19 meeting, Bonnie Seitsinger, emphasized that the World Health Organization has confirmed that glyphosate “is probably carcinogenic.” In fact, it was the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer — IARC — that made that finding, the News Leader learned from an article originally published by E&E News. That finding was publicly revealed in early February 2018 by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, an Oregon Democrat on the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Environment, during a hearing on glyphosate, E&E News reported. Moreover, a Jan. 23 article by Richard J. Dolesh, available on the National Recreation and Parks Association website, points out, “The link to human health and cancer may not be conclusive, but California juries ruled in 2019 that Roundup [which contains glyphosate] did contribute to developing non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and awarded one couple $2 billion in damages. At this writing,” Dolesh added, “there are more than 18,000 lawsuits filed against chemical giant Bayer, which bought Monsanto, the original developer of this herbicide.”)

These are details about glufosinate. Image courtesy National Center for Biotechnology Information
These are chemical facts about glyphosate. Image from the National Center for Biotechnology Information

Chemistry and practicality

During the Oct. 19 City Commission discussion, Pedersen noted that Miami is her hometown. She learned that Whack Out Weeds is used in some areas in that city, she added, “which is why we tried that [organic] product.”

A list of suggested alternatives to glyphosate that Non Toxic Sarasota provided staff, Pedersen noted, contained products that “carried warning and danger labels or labels [that were] so vague, I didn’t know what was in them. … So we excluded things [from the city trials] that were extremely dangerous to staff and to the environment.”

Candie Pedersen of the Parks and Recreation Department addresses the commissioners on Oct. 19. News Leader image

Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch asked Parks and Recreation Department Director Fogle whether he believed that switching to the combination of Cheetah Pro and SafeGuard “is a step in the right direction” while staff continues research into other alternatives to glyphosate.

“I think, Mayor, that it’s a step in the right direction,” Fogle replied. He did acknowledge, “We’re not scientists here, obviously.”

Moreover, Fogle said he believes more alternatives to glyphosate will be coming onto the market, so staff could conduct research on them.

Then City Manager Barwin pointed out that he serves on the board of the Science and Environmental Council of Southwest Florida, which is based in Sarasota. The members of that nonprofit organization, he said, are primarily scientists and university faculty members. He would like to ask them to look into alternatives to glyphosate, he added. “We need some regional experts,” Barwin pointed out, though he commended city staff for “doing a very good job” in its research.

Mayor Ahearn-Koch also voiced concern about the higher expense of using Cheetah Pro with SafeGuard. Yet, Pedersen of Parks and Recreation responded that, based on the staff trials, it might not be necessary to spray the combination as often on weeds in city parks. “The cost and labor may even everything out in the end.”

When Vice Mayor Freeland Eddie asked whether “a wind-down period” would be necessary before staff could switch to the Cheetah Pro/SureGuard mix, Pederson told her, “Not necessarily, no, ma’am. I can’t think of any reason why you couldn’t spray something different …”

Freeland Eddie then asked whether staff would have to close off areas while the spraying was underway.

“The only product restriction is that … you allow the product to dry,” Pederson responded. “It usually takes an average of 10 or 15 minutes for any of those products to dry,” she added, depending on the level of humidity, for example.

This is information from the Cheetah Pro product label. Image courtesy City of Sarasota

Staff does put up signs to alert the public when spraying will be underway, Pederson noted. Most people will avoid those areas, as a result, she said. “We try not to [spray] when [a] park is super busy.”

When Freeland Eddie asked Pedersen whether any information was available regarding incidents of people becoming ill after exposure to the other products staff tried, Pederson told her, “Not that I’m aware of.” However, Pedersen added, “Some of the organic products are quite new … and the organic products are not regulated.”

Given the lack of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversight of their production, Pederson pointed out, she had concerns that one batch of an organic product could vary quite a bit from another batch.