While parts of the country are battling swarms of cicadas this summer, Maine is battling an invasive species of caterpillar with poisonous hairs that can cause painful rashes and even breathing problems.
The caterpillars, known as brown-tailed moths, are about 1.5 inches long with white streaks on the sides and two red dots on the back.
Brown-tailed moths are most common on the Maine coast and Cape Cod, but they have been spotted in all 16 Maine counties this year, said Jim Britt, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
"People find them everywhere: on the floor, on the picnic table, at the electrical box, on the corner – whatever," said Britt. “You have a strong presence. People will see them everywhere. "
"We are in the middle of an outbreak," he said.
The caterpillars have tiny poisonous hairs that can remain poisonous for up to three years, the Maine Department of Health warned.
After people come into contact with the caterpillar's hair, they can develop a red and bumpy rash that resembles a reaction to poison ivy that can last for a few hours to several weeks, the department said. When the hair is inhaled, some people can develop breathing problems.
Other people, like Mr Britt who said he recently came across the caterpillars in a park, don't develop symptoms.
“They were everywhere and I had absolutely no reaction to them,” he said.
There is no specific treatment for the rash other than remedies like calamine lotion, the department said.
In Waterville, Maine, a town about 20 miles north of Augusta, the caterpillar infestation has gotten so out of control that the mayor has called an emergency council meeting to declare a public health emergency and order insecticides.
"After a pandemic year where we can finally go out and socialize, this is the last thing we want to deal with," Mayor Jay Coelho said at the meeting, adding that he had received several emails from. received Waterville residents with pictures of painful rashes.
The caterpillars spend the winter in oaks and other deciduous trees and hatch in the spring, said Mr Britt.
Brown-tailed moths aren't new to Maine, which has had them for a century. The caterpillars originally came from Massachusetts but ended up in Maine "because they are experienced hitchhikers," said Britt.
Although it is unclear what exactly caused this recent infestation, Mr Britt said that dry conditions are "absolutely ideal" for brown-tailed moths to expand their range.
During the emergency meeting in Waterville, a city council member, Thomas Klepach, raised concerns that climate change could worsen the infestation in years to come.
"It is wise for the city to get the outbreak under control as much as possible now," said Klepach, "and to realize that this may be an ongoing problem."
The Maine Department of Health recommends showering and changing clothes after visiting brown-tailed moth areas, wearing a mask and goggles when doing outdoor activities like raking leaves and gardening on wet days.