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Brunswick, College work to combat browntail moths

April 27, 2017

After town residents experienced persistent rashes and respiratory issues last summer, both the Brunswick Town Council and the College are seeking to mitigate the effects of browntail moths in the coming months. The moths inhabit the branches of oak trees across Midcoast Maine.

The major health concerns associated with the moths come from their caterpillars’ hairs, which are shed in metamorphosis and easily blown in the wind. These hairs are microscopic, hook-like and can attach themselves to clothing or skin, giving people skin rashes and respiratory problems.

In addition to health concerns, the Council is also worried about the moths’ potential effect on tourism, a major source of revenue for coastal Maine.

“There’s frustration in this because I believe this a regional problem. I believe that the state should be participating because it impacts various townships, various counties. It’s moving up the coast and this will have potential impact on tourism, on public health, on ecological health,” said Brunswick Town Councilor Sarah Brayman.

According to Ted Stam, director of facilities operations and management, there had been a decline in the moth population for many years, until last summer when they flourished after an unusually dry spring. Oak trees normally grow a fungus that kills caterpillars, but the fungus needs rain.

“It is another bad year for browntail moths and I think next year is predicted to be a bad year as well,” said Stam.

Neither the rash nor respiratory problems are life-threatening, according to Director of Health Services Jeffrey Maher.

“It’s mostly a nuisance. It was a pretty regular nuisance for people who were working their lawn on a dry day or mowing the grass,” he said.

In Brunswick, the moths are primarily found in the upper and lower malls, near the town’s athletic fields and along the bike path. On College property, the moths are most prevalent on the Quad, near the athletic fields and around the Bowdoin College Children’s Center.

Last summer, hospitals in the area saw an increase in patients coming in with symptoms associated with the moths, according to Brayman. Bowdoin students and faculty also visited the Health Center at the end of August and September for the moths, which Maher said was unusual. He mentioned a pharmacy in Kennebunk that had created its own spray to calm the rashes. Last year, the pharmacy sold anywhere between 40 and 50 bottles a day.

Büşra Eriz ’17 was working as a senior admissions fellow last summer when she began experiencing a rash on her arms, legs and chest. The Mid Coast Hospital Walk-In Clinic was able to immediately diagnose her.

“I went to a farmer’s market. It was a beautiful day—the sun was shining, everything is just green and beautiful. A day later, I start seeing these little red spots and feeling very itchy,” she said.

“I had never heard of browntail moths,” she added.

In addition to students, faculty and staff, Bowdoin is also home to various organizations—such as Maine State Music Theater, the Bowdoin International Summer Music Festival and a chapter of Upward Bound—throughout the summer.

Stam said that the College will primarily treat the trees on its property through either pruning or spraying. In pruning, facilities will remove the nests from the trees and then burn the nests. This is Stam’s preferred form of treatment.

“[Pruning] doesn’t involve the use of chemicals but it’s not as effective as chemical treatment—application of pesticides,” Stam said. “For example, on our Quad we have done the best we can to prune and we’d like to avoid using sprays there. In other areas it makes more sense to spray and we will spray.”

Facilities will spray near the athletic fields and Children’s Center, since children are particularly susceptible to the moths. Stam said that facilities will coordinate with the staff at the Children’s Center and its neighbors to coordinate an appropriate time to spray.

“It just is what it is and we’re doing an approach where we try to preserve our more important trees for the campus, but we just can’t get everything,” Stam added.

For the College, the entire operation, including the outsourcing of spraying, will cost somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000.

Treating the trees will be cost-intensive for both Bowdoin and Brunswick, and there is no way to ensure that moths will be completely eradicated. Brayman attributes the difficulty of eradicating the moths in part to the lack of state funding and the fact that each town along the coast is choosing to treat trees its own way. According to Brayman, some towns have not yet made plans to attack the issue. Even with government planning, there is no way to ensure that private homeowners can or will remove the nests from their properties.

At a council meeting in February, the council passed a resolution that authorized up to $40,000 from an unappropriated general fund and allowed the town manager to take any appropriate action. Brayman called the amount of money “a drop in the bucket.”

“At this point there’s no state resources. So in some ways we’re at this wait-and-see perspective because we don’t know,” she said. “If they die off that’s great, nature will solve the problem. If [not], we have a huge problem on our hands and we’re going to have to fight for as many resources as we can to deal with this.”

In addition to the Council’s actions, citizens are also working each other on how to properly dispose of the moths when the nests are on private property.

“We really wanted to get to at least do something because being outside and being able to enjoy Maine in the summer is a huge part of living in the state,” Brayman said.

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