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How should we handle Florida snow?

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Some people thought the Sun was irresponsible for even printing it.

A stream of letters to the editor rolled in after Charlotte County's Horticulture Agent Ralph Mitchell wrote a column for the Sun about a weed that's popped up all over southwest Florida recently.

Florida snow, aka large flower pusley, is either loved or hated by residents who are experiencing it now into the winter.

It's not the weed itself that prompted the letters.

It was how Mitchell suggested it could be eliminated if you don't want it on your lawn.

He noted the herbicides atrazine and glyphosate could potentially be applied to lawns to control the weed.

But that really upset some people with serious environmental concerns about health, water quality and wildlife. 

Here's the debate:

Herbicides are safe when label is followed

Ralph Mitchell, the county's horticulture agent, explained in his Nov. 28 column in the Sun, that people who like Florida snow can let it be and enjoy the drought tolerant plant that does well in poor soil.

But for the others, who think it's unattractive and want it gone from lawns, Mitchell shared some options to get rid of it. 

For those with St. Augustine grass - but not Bahia grass (which is the more common native grass) - Mitchell suggested using an herbicide called atrazine.

He stressed atrazine should only be used per label directions.

"Read the label it's the law," Mitchell wrote.

And if most of your turf is covered with Florida snow, Mitchell wrote "you may need to kill the area with glyphosate and start over."

Mitchell got a great deal of feedback from some people in response to his article, he confirmed in an email.

Asked if he wanted to address the concerns about using herbicides to handle Florida snow, Mitchell responded that it's OK to use when the label is followed.

"I provide research-based, unbiased information as supported by the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Science," he said in the email. "While I appreciate resident feedback we will have to agree to disagree with this issue."

The issue, he added in the email, is "polarizing and emotion driven."

Ridding lawns of Florida snow is a common service provided by large companies like TrueGreen, as well as other local companies.

George Kuhn, director of field operations for Pest Patrol of SW Florida, confirmed this is a common service they provide in the area.

Because Florida snow is so predominant, out of all his weed-related services, Kuhn said it's "probably the number one call we get."

Kuhn explained every lawn is different and each is analyzed to provide the best and safest treatment method.

"For weed control for Florida pusley, every time I read the label," said Kuhn, who is licensed to apply herbicides and pesticides and has been working in the industry over a decade. "I check the directions and make sure I'm putting in what it calls for to be effective."

Treating the invasive large flower pusley weed is also a common service and standard part of the TrueGreen lawn program.

"It might take several visits to get this particular weed under control," said TrueGreen's Florida Regional Agronomic Manager Erica Santella. "We also fertilize the lawn to make it thicker and better able to cut off room for weeds such as large flower pusley to grow."

One treatment will reduce the look of large flower pusley on your lawn, according to TrueGreen, but six to eight treatments per year is recommended by the company "to keep weeds at bay and to keep your lawn healthy and green."

But is that safe for pets and kids, and is it environmentally friendly?

"Safety is TruGreen's number one priority," said Santella. "The products we use are EPA-registered and we take great care to ensure that lawn products are applied safely, according to federal, state and local regulations."

Mowing also won't help, Santella and Kuhn agreed.

Though it may reduce the presence of the weed temporarily, mowing will actually spread it throughout your lawn, according to Santella.

And it can spread to other people's lawns often through mowing - even when clippings are bagged - through mower blades mowing multiple lawns, according to Kuhn.

UF continues to recommend gyphosate "as a weed control tool" and notes users should carefully read and follow the label and directions.

Last year, the EPA issued a draft risk assessment for Glyphosate related to any risk to human health and the environment.

As far as human health, the draft risk assessment "concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans," according to UF.

In 2019, the EPA is expected to say if there are any proposed measures needed to reduce risks of using glyphosate.

UF also lists atrazine as a way to control residential lawns and control weeds, when the label is followed. 

Herbicides hurt us, water and the environment

"It is extremely irresponsible of both (Ralph) Mitchell and the Sun to write/print this article supporting the use of glyphosate which is one of the chemicals linked to our environmentally disastrous water problems and the death of our beautiful sea life," wrote Englewood resident Carroll Swayze in a letter to the editor earlier this month.

Swayze, an art studio owner, wrote that she couldn't understand why the Sun would print Mitchell's article "advocating the use of poison on the ground that will leach into our water when we are in the middle of the worst ecological disaster in possibly Florida's history."

And she's not alone.

Englewood resident Ginger Kenney wrote in to the Sun saying she was appalled that it was suggested to use glyphosate to kill these weeds.

Kenney said: "the majority of the residents here know this is a huge contributor to feeding the red tide and the last thing we need to put on our lawns."

Another Englewood resident Denise Hart wrote into the Sun saying "Atrazine is the No. 1 contaminant in U.S. drinking water."

Hart added that "it is banned in Europe" and that glyphosate "is a known carcinogen." 

According to a report in the Guardian, the European parliament has called for glyphosate to be banned by 2022.

The Stuart City Council in Martin County, voted to ban city use of glyphosate, according to a September report from the television station WPTV.

Suncoast Waterkeeper Andy Mele agrees that atrazine and glyphosate are not good.

Mele said glyphosate is a carcinogen and "I think the stuff should be banned."

"People need to get out from their attachment from lush, green grass," he added.

What about a connection with water quality problems or red tide?

Mele said he's not convinced about a red tide connection, but he added if the chemicals get into the water they could sicken or kill sea life.

"Discount that (red tide connection) until we see some scientific studies," Mele said. "Everybody has red tide PTSD."

The Action Network, which calls itself a progressive online organizing forum, has a petition online to "help ban glyphosate in Florida." 

"In March, 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that there is sufficient evidence of glyphosate’s carcinogenicity in experimental animals and classified glyphosate as probably carcinogenic to humans," states the petition.

"We call on legislators in Florida to take the precautionary principle to impose a moratorium on glyphosate-based herbicides used in Florida to protect our children and prevent our people, pets, wildlife and endangered species from being exposed and our waterways and ecosystems from being contaminated," the petition notes.

Swayze wrote that Charlotte County's horticulture agent should suggest using native plants and grasses that are sustainable and don't need fertilization like St. Augustine lawns.

"Perhaps writing an article suggesting that the beautiful Florida snow flowers are an asset that feed our bees instead of a scourge would be better instead of recommending poison to kill everything in a lawn and 'starting over', as he (Mitchell) suggested to your readers," Swayze wrote.

And Hart added in her letter that Florida means Flowers. "Let them bloom and let's have healthy communities and waters."

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