The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Maine Forest Service and 211 Maine are reminding the public to take precautions now that browntail moth caterpillars are emerging from their webs.
The caterpillars are covered with tiny hairs, which can become airborne, potentially causing a skin reaction like poison ivy and trouble breathing if inhaled — a potential issue of great concern given that many Mainers are spending increased time outdoors for recreation and yard maintenance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All counties in southern, midcoast, Down East and south-central Maine are at some risk of browntail moth exposures from now through July when the moths are active. The hairs can land anywhere, including on trees, gardens, lawns and decks. The hairs remain toxic in the environment for one to three years, and can be stirred up by activities like mowing, raking and sweeping, according to Maine Center for Disease Control spokesman Robert Long, whose organization has established a web page for the moth problem.
Most affected individuals develop a localized rash that lasts from a few hours to several days. In more sensitive individuals, the rash can be severe and last for weeks. Respiratory distress from inhaling the hairs can be serious. The rash and difficulty breathing result from both a chemical reaction to a toxin in the hairs and a physical irritation as the barbed hairs become embedded in the skin and airways.
But it’s not the first time that caterpillars have caused disruptions. In 2018, fuzzy caterpillars besieged a neighborhood in Blue Hill flooding the Mines Road between Second and Third ponds for weeks and causing a traffic advisory to be placed along those roads.
Steps Mainers can take to protect themselves from browntail moth hairs:
―- Avoid places infested by caterpillars. When performing activities outdoors that may stir up caterpillar hairs, choose damp days or wet vegetation with a hose. The moisture helps keep the hairs from becoming airborne.
—- Cover your face with a respirator, if available, and goggles. Take extra care to avoid activities that stir up hairs. If respirators are difficult to obtain, perform outdoor activities with a cloth face covering, which may reduce the risk of inhaling caterpillar hairs.
—- Wear long sleeves, pants and a hat and tightly secure clothing around the neck, wrists, and ankles.
—- Take cool showers and change clothes after outdoor activities in infested areas. Dry laundry inside during June and July to avoid hairs embedding into clothing.