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

WATERVILLE — People using parks and playgrounds throughout the city can expect to see flyers posted there this week notifying them of the city’s problem with browntail moth caterpillars, as municipal officials step up to quickly address what they’ve declared to be a public health emergency.

Waterville city officials plan to post this informational flyer about browntail moths at parks and other public locations this week amid growing concern about their spread. Courtesy City of Waterville

The flyers will explain how to avoid contact with the caterpillars, what to do if they are affected by them and who is at higher risk than others of getting rashes or respiratory issues from their poisonous hairs.

The notices will include information from the Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention and other state websites, according to City Manager Stephen Daly.

“We’ve taken the position, we are not going to purport to be medical authorities or public health administrators — what we’re going to do is post information so people have a way to access more in-depth information if they choose,” Daly said Monday.

Fire department officials distributed such flyers door-to-door in the city’s North End and members of the South End Neighborhood Association distributed flyers house-to-house in the South End to notify residents of the browntail issue, according to Daly. The Parks & Recreation Department will post the notices at the parks and playgrounds before Wednesday, he said.

City councilors, including Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, and Mayor Jay Coelho have received many calls from residents recently saying they and/or their children have gotten rashes from the browntail moth caterpillar hairs and some people have reported having respiratory issues. Klepach, a faculty member in Colby College’s biology department, first reported the issue June 2 at a council meeting, urging that the city address the problem.

The council held a hasty meeting Friday night and voted to declare a public emergency and the need to preserve the public health and safety of residents. Councilors also voted to petition the CDC to declare browntail a public health nuisance in Waterville and provide Daly with $5,000 to do whatever is necessary to immediately address the issue.

Daly and other city officials spent time over the weekend working on it.

“We spent a lot of time and a little bit of paper resources to get the information out, because we — I and Fire Chief Shawn Esler and police Chief Joseph Massey — decided getting useful information in the hands of people as quickly as possible was our best strategy,” Daly said.

Brian Clark, vice president of planning for Colby College, contacted the city and Colby has offered assistance in dealing with the browntail moth caterpillar problem, according to Daly.

Notices offering information have been posted on the city’s website and Facebook page, as well as on police and fire websites.

“Browntail moths are currently posing a serious public safety concern in our community. Please take the time to review the attached material that contains important information on how to handle exposures and control infestations. Do not hesitate if you experience any difficulty breathing, swallowing, or swelling of your mouth, tongue, or throat as a result of exposure, immediately dial 911.”

The city notices also link to information provided by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conversation and Forestry, as well as the Department of Health and Human Services.

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. They 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 the skin. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Waterville Public Schools Superintendent Eric Haley said Monday that browntail has not posed a concern for schools, but staff members have reported a problem with them at their own properties.

Haley said Massey contacted him to ask if schools would send notices home to parents.

“I think it’s a really good thing to do,” Haley said, adding that many people don’t know about browntail and the problems they can cause.

Coelho put out a plea Friday, asking anyone who does browntail moth mitigation work to get in touch with the city, as many companies the city contacted were not available. Daly said Monday that if a professional does contact the city, officials plan to ask what can be done right now that would have a meaningful effect.

“The council is very opposed to spraying of any kind, because over spraying could be a problem,” he said. “If we are able to talk to any of them, we are going to talk about injection or cutting out nests.”

Browntail moths were first introduced in Somerville, Massachusetts, from Europe more than 100 years ago, but have been steadily becoming more prevalent in Maine in recent years.

Meanwhile, severe drought conditions last summer were a boon for the caterpillar in the region, as populations along the Maine coast have continued expanding into Waldo, Kennebec and Somerset counties.

In Waterville, the browntail moth caterpillars have become more noticeable this spring. Daly reported that several Public Works Department employees have experienced rashes from working in the city’s parks and ballfields, as well as from trimming greenery on roadsides.

The caterpillars, which typically have two distinct reddish dots, become active in the spring when they emerge from their winter webs and begin feeding, growing until they reach their maximum size in June to cocoon into moths. A second batch of caterpillars hatch from eggs in August and are active until early October.

 

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