Other scientists are investigating whether the bacteria and drugs are seeping into ground water on the Eastern Shore, Silbergeld said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists reported recently that the annual use of antibiotics in the food and drink of healthy farm animals grew from 16 million pounds in the mid-1980s to 25 million pounds in 2001. That total was more than eight times the 3 million pounds of antibiotics used to treat humans for diseases that year.
The nonprofit scientific advocacy group outlined the dangers of excessive use of antibiotics in a recent report. "As more bacterial strains develop resistance [to the drugs], more people will die because ... the bacteria causing the disease are resistant to all available antibiotics," the report said.
Beth McGee, a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said that research she conducted in 2000 and 2001 found antibiotics from chicken manure in tributaries to the Nanticoke River and other waterways on the Eastern Shore.
"One concern is the potential impact on aquatic resources. Will fish get sick more if there are really virulent forms of bacteria out there?" McGee asked. "But the more pressing concern is the public health impact."
Carole Morison, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for better working conditions for poultry workers, said many farmers and laborers have complained about frequent stomach and intestinal ailments that didn't respond to drugs. Many workers are afraid to speak out because they worry they'll be fired, Morison said.
"This [study] is important work, because for a long time, people who worked around chickens were always saying, `I got a touch of the bug again,'" said Morison, who owns a 54,400-chicken farm in Worcester County. "But they were having this bug six, eight, 10 times a year, which isn't normal. It's just too much of people being sick."
Ross, who lives in Wattsville, Va., said he earned $9.05 an hour at his job. He worked from 4:45 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. at the plant, hanging chickens on hooks after they tumbled out of a machine that scalded them to loosen their feathers.
It was a "nasty job," Ross said, adding he contracted several infections in his hands and fingers.
Silbergeld said she has examined documents and photos detailing Ross' infections. "I have looked at his medical records, and they clearly say he had repeated drug-resistant infections in his hands," said Silbergeld.
Ross said he missed about three months of work because of his recent infection and surgery. This absence contributed to an argument with his supervisor and his dismissal on Aug. 19, he said.
"I had four infections like that, and you know, I've known other workers who've gotten sick, too," said Ross. "This is something that should be looked into ... because this food we're handling is going out to the public. People eat this stuff."