Birmingham went “cold turkey” in July 2016 on the purchase and use of the glyphosate, a controversial herbicide in the weed killer Round Up, after the city commission failed to approve its use on municipal golf courses, the commission reversed itself on Monday, October 16, by a vote of 6-1, and will now permit the use of the herbicide as a means of control of invasive plants, weeds and other nuisance vegetation in limited areas as long as it is done by trained and certified applicators in the early morning hours.
Lauren Wood, director of public services for Birmingham, informed commissioners the city has received a lot of complaints this summer on the condition of downtown streets, with weeds poking through sidewalk cracks, and walkways and trails in parks. She assured commissioners and the public that they never treat lawns with glyphosate, and in the past have only used it on “sidewalks, tree wells, parking lots, parking decks, alleys, landscape beds on city property, Woodward Avenue and other medians...gravel pathways, downtown, Triangle District, library, City Hall, museum, fire stations, golf courses, the ice arena and DPS.”
There had been an effort to stop using glyphosate, led by commissioner Patty Bordman, after Downtown newsmagazine did a longform article on the widespread use and possible toxic impact of glyphosate in November 2015. Critics of the pesticide assert that exposure to Roundup and glyphosate, which can come through humans running on sprayed grass to exposure in drinking water from surface runoff or drainage into wells, may damage liver and kidneys, cause irregular heartbeat, reproductive disorders, neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and cancer. Some cities, such as Chicago, New York City and Boulder, as well as countries like Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, have banned the use of the chemical in all public spaces.
Birmingham tried more “homeopathic” ways to treat weeds, Wood said, including hand pulling, which was extremely labor intensive, with results short-lived; a five percent mixture of vinegar mixed with salt and soap, which she said they had very poor results from and abandoned; and in August 2017, another vinegar remedy, using 30 percent horticultural vinegar, orange oil and soap.
“It was successful,” she reported. “It burned the weed immediately, but requires more frequent applications as it is more of a contact burn, not systemic. The oil residue was hard on the spray equipment, clogging it, making it more labor intensive, with rinsing and washing required often. It is also very expensive. Staff continued using mechanical methods such as hand pulling in landscape beds.”
Going forward, Wood recommended to commissioners they use glyphosate, but not RoundUp, which she said had more toxic ingredients, to treat the weeds.
In a report, she wrote of glyphosate, “Low toxicity to fish and wildlife according to MSU extension. Binds tightly to the soil, no runoff. Breaks down quickly in the soil by microbes. Average four weeks for biodegradation. Excellent results.”
“The chemical itself is not terrible – it’s RoundUp which is more toxic when it’s mixed with something else,” asserted commissioner Stuart Sherman. “The issue is, we’ve got to kill the weeds. They’ll do it at 4 a.m. But we’ve got to give them to tools to take care of the city. There’s a certain expectation of the city should look.”
Commissioners, other than Bordman, agreed, approving the use of glyphosate by a vote of 6-1.