Toxic browntail moths threaten Mainers

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With the Corona Virus limiting travel, many people in Maine and Cape Cod are spending more time doing yard work and risk exposure to bowntail moths. The Maine Center for Disease Control & Prevention reminds people to be mindful of  toxic bowntail moths. The caterpillars spin a large tent-like communal cocoon where they spend the winter and exit as moths during May.

The caterpillars have millions of poisonous barbed hairs that cause blistery skin rashes to people who come into contact with them.

Browntail moths risks

Exposure is possible in south-central Maine and southern, down East and midcoast counties. The highest risk is the period is from May through July, which is when the browntail moths are active. After July, the moths lay eggs from where the hairy caterpillars hatch. That is the larval stage, which lass from August through June. However, the risk of making contact with the toxic hairs is present throughout its life cycle.

The caterpillars shed the barbed hairs as they feed on various plants. The hairs land on decks, trees, lawns and trees, and yard work like sweeping, mowing and raking make them airborne. The toxic hairs remain in the environment for up to three years. Although the toxic hairs cover the browntail moth caterpillars, the moths also spread the hairs. This is because up to 400 caterpillars gather in one single tent-like cocoon. As the moths exit, they carry with them the hairs that the caterpillars left behind. Also, the worst thing a person can do is to handle one of those cocoons.

Consequences of contact

The Maine CDC says a blistery, oozy rash can develop on the skin after contact with the toxic hairs. The rash can last only hours, but days or months on people with more sensitive skins. The toxin in the browntail moth’s hairs causes a chemical reaction that leads to the physical irritation. Inhaling the hairs poses an additional threat of respiratory distress when the toxic hairs become embedded inside the lungs.

Precautions to avoid contact with the hairs of Browntail moths

Relieving symptoms is the only treatment because no specific treatment exists for the skin irritation or the respiratory illness. Maine residents could take the following precautions to avoid exposure when doing yard work:

  • Keep a lookout for infestation and avoid those areas.
  • Wear protective clothing such as a hat, long sleeves, long pants that are tight fitting around the wrists, ankles and neck.
  • Use a respirator, face mask, or other protection to avoid inhalation of airborne browntail moth hairs.
  • Wear thick, protective gloves to remove the tent-like cocoon.
  • Put the cocoon in a bucket of hot water to avoid the use of pesticides.
  • Take a cool shower and change your clothing after exposure to the toxic hairs.
  • Avoid hanging laundry outside from June through July to avoid embedding of the hairs in clothing.

Also note that some people have reported stings by the barbed hairs penetrating their clothing.

Identification of browntail moths and caterpillars

Knowing for what to look out might spare you the consequences of contact with the toxic, barbed hairs. Both male and female moths have pure white wings. Their name comes from the dark brown tuft of hair on the abdomen at the tip of its tail. The caterpillar is dark brown, with two bright red spots on its back and broken white lines on its sides. They feed on oak, cherry, apple, shadbush, rugosa rose and beach plum trees.

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