May 26, 2017 8:03 pm

Sick people pass through them all the time, so how clean are our ambulances?

WATCH: Driving to a hospital with its siren blaring, you expect an ambulance to be carrying a sick patient. But as Elaine Van Rootselaar reports, what you can’t see lurking inside could be just as much of an emergency.

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The end of a run for emergency services personnel doesn’t just involve getting the patient into hospital. It’s also about cleaning up and making sure no harmful germs are left inside the ambulance.

Lethbridge Emergency Medical Services (EMS) wanted to know if there was a data-driven way to track cleanliness, so they wrote a letter to ask the University of Lethbridge for help.

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Ward Eggli, Lethbridge’s EMS resource officer, says it started very simplistically. “We really were looking for an opportunity to clean our ambulances in a better way. We were concerned for patient safety, yes, but also for our paramedics. We need to make sure they’re not carrying pathogens and bringing them home to their families.”

Researchers at the university tested four freshly-cleaned ambulances, and discovered that the process and products Lethbridge EMS used were quite effective.

However, there were some bacteria present, including staphylococcus and pseudomonas. While their presence isn’t usually a concern to healthy people, contact could pose a risk to an immune-compromised person.

Researchers discovered the germs by using a DNA sequencer, which can identify pathogens in the field.

Andy Hudson, a microbiologist with the Alberta RNA Research and Training Institute says they were happy to help, since the situation provided a real-world problem for them to solve. They were already developing a prototype of a small DNA sequencer and tested the ambulances with it.

Most DNA sequencers on the market are the size of a microwave — this one is portable and pocket-sized.

Hudson says it’s getting modified further to be even more easy to use. “[Someday]… it could be used to test not only ambulances for lingering bugs but also hospitals, airports, and anywhere else pathogens could linger.”

Armed with knowledge from the DNA sequencer, ambulance staff can now tailor their cleaning practices to the pathogens that may be present, and ensure patients and practitioners are the only ones being transported in the back of the ambulance.

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