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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Be Careful Who You Tailgate

November 26, 2008

Researchers have made a downright nasty discovery, that crates of chickens being trucked along the highway in the back of an open truck can shoot a bunch of bacteria into the cars behind them.

Drivers stuck behind such a germ carrying truck should “pass them quickly,” advised study co-author Ana Rule, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University.

Scientists say they are unsure of the health affects; none of the researchers who studied this problem got sick. Plus, the disease-causing bacteria in question are normally spread by food or water, not air.

Rule and her team at the Bloomberg School of Public Health focused on the so-called Delmarva Peninsula, a coastal area that includes parts of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. The region is known as a chicken mecca, boasting one of the highest concentrations of broiler chickens per acre in the nation.

The researchers conducted the study by riding in four-door cars with all the windows down and the air conditioning off along a 17-mile stretch of highway connecting chicken farms in Maryland to a processing plant to the south in Accomac, Virginia.

Researchers checked the cars for bacteria after driving when there were no chicken trucks around, and compared that to bacteria found after 10 trips behind flatbed trucks carrying crates of broiler chickens.

They collected bacteria from air samples, door handles and soda cans inside the car.

The study found high levels of certain bacteria, including some that are resistant to antibiotics, in all the truck cases.

Its being published in the Journal of Infection and Public Health, and it’s touted as the first to look at whether poultry trucking exposes people to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Rule said a casual conversation inspired the effort. “Somebody said, ‘I went to the beach the other day and I got stuck behind a chicken truck, and boy, is that nasty,’” she said.

Dr. Keith Klugman, an Emory University epidemiologist who was not involved in the research, said people getting sick from riding behind a chicken truck is highly unlikely.

Klugman noted most healthy people don’t suffer serious illness from these bacteria even when exposed in more conventional ways.

“It was kind of an unnatural experiment, in that people were driving behind these trucks with the windows open and the air conditioning off – for 17 miles,” he added. “If you were driving behind a truck that was spewing stuff out the back of it, the first thing you would probably do is close your windows.”

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