A browntail moth caterpillar is shown Wednesday between Jameson Dow, left, and classmate Charlie Ferris, both 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home in Waterville. Dow discovered that the caterpillars had invaded a tree in the front yard of the Ferris home. The were able to spot four of the caterpillars on low hanging limbs. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

WATERVILLE — City councilors on Friday night declared a public emergency and the need to preserve the public health and safety of residents from the browntail moth caterpillars, which have caused many to suffer severe rashes and respiratory problems.

Mayor Jay Coelho was not satisfied when told many companies contacted this week to help mitigate the problem are unavailable.

“If you are an organization that does this sort of work, start contacting the city manager,” Coelho said, issuing a public plea. “Whether you’re from Waterville or Alaska, we don’t care. Come help us with this browntail moth issue.”

Coelho called Friday’s emergency meeting, at which councilors voted unanimously to petition the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention to declare browntail moths a public health nuisance in the city. In addition to voting 7-0 to declare a public health emergency, the council voted unanimously to authorize City Manager Steve Daly to spend funds in a manner he deems best to address the problem, whether that includes hiring someone to spray trees or ensuring public notices are posted around the city.

The notices would inform people of the browntail moth problem and what to do to avoid getting the rash and respiratory issues. Those notices also would explain what people should do if they do experience such problems.

“Let’s give the city manager the directive to do the best thing that is to be done,” Councilor Claude Francke, D-Ward 6, said.

Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, alerted councilors Tuesday night of the browntail moth problem, saying he had been contacted by many residents who were suffering from rashes. He said he had been researching what can be done to address the problem. A faculty member in the Colby College biology department, Klepach urged the city to act now.

A browntail moth caterpillar is shown Wednesday morning after falling from a tree near Head of Falls in Waterville and onto a notepad. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Microscopic, poisonous hairs shed by browntail moth caterpillars cause rashes similar to those caused by poison ivy. If inhaled, the airborne hairs may cause respiratory issues in people who are sensitive to them. The caterpillars typically have a pair of distinctive reddish dots on their body.

Coelho said Planning Board Member David Johnson had pored over 100 years of reports this week, discovering that as far back as 1911, the city was warned about what would happen if it didn’t act on browntail moths. Experts say the deadline for doing anything to mitigate browntail moth issues for this year is June 15 and time is running out.

Addressing the many residents who have been emailing and calling the city reporting that they and their children have broken out in rashes, Coelho said “we have heard you and we are listening.”

“With this council, I am hoping we will act swiftly,” he said.

Klepach said petitioning the CDC to declare a public health nuisance is important because it would enable the city to spend municipal funds on public lands and right-of-ways — to have a more wholistic or geographic approach to the problem. This is not about exterminating the moths, he said.

“It is about managing the problem until we have a succession of several weather conditions that will end the current outbreak,” Klepach said.

The browntail moth has been in Waterville before and the long-term trends of climate change probably will make it more frequent and severe over time, according to Klepach. It is wise for the city to get it under control, he said. One of the hardest times to treat for browntail is when the pest becomes the most obnoxious, Klepach noted.

Experts in mitigation have differing opinions about whether the city is still in the window for treating the situation this year, he said. Daly said John Lombardi, a city engineer and arborist, spoke with contractors who deal with browntail in Kennebec County and the city has some choices to make, according to Daly said.

The most promising action is injecting liquid into trees that have browntail nests and that would keep the nests away for two years, he said.

A browntail moth caterpillar is shown above Charlie Ferris, 10, in a tree at Ferris’s home Wednesday afternoon in Waterville. Ferris and classmate Jameson Dow found four of the caterpillars in the front yard tree. The caterpillar, which has two distinctive reddish dots, has poisonous hairs that can cause a rash if exposed to skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

“Spraying is an option but it’s not a popular option — we’ve heard that from the mayor and we’ve heard that from others,” Daly said.

Contractors say that using an organic spray has a 40% to 50% kill rate, while nonorganic spraying has an 85% to 90% kill rate, he said.

He said four options are available: cutting the nests out of trees, which is costly and labor intensive; spraying the foliage; injecting liquid into trees, which kills moths and other insects; and cutting trees down.

Meanwhile, Klepach said there are a number of things people can do to survive the summer, including keeping windows closed that face prevailing winds; pointing fans toward windows instead of positioning them so they suck air in; changing air conditioner filters and using those conditioners; and washing clothes frequently, particularly after doing yard work, including mowing. As soon as people notice welts on their skin, they should take a piece of duct tape, apply it to the affected area and rip it off, as it takes the caterpillar hairs with it, according to Klepach.

“They say you can fix anything with duct tape — this is another example,” he said.

Topical creams that help are hydrocortisone, Benadryl and Lidocaine, and some people like to use Vicks Vapo Rub for its cooling action, Klepach said. He urged people who can’t sleep because of the rash or have problems breathing to seek medical help.

Planning Board member Johnson’s wife, Jennifer, said the caterpillar hairs are light and fluffy and a quick spray of a garden hose to tamp them down is helpful. She said she is sensitive to the hairs and not only gets scars all over her body from the rash, but also has respiratory problems when affected.

“This is a huge quality of life impact,” she said.

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