Thursday, May 15, 2008

Looking For Germs? Check Your Money.

Jack Dini
Livermore, CA

(From Hawaii Reporter, May 15, 2008)

The legal tender in your pocket or purse definitely carries some germs and most likely also has some cocaine. Researchers at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio collected 68 dollar bills from people at a grocery store and a high-school sporting event. According to Dr. Peter Ender, lead researcher, sixty-four (94%) of the bills were contaminated with bacteria known to cause either serious or mild illness. Five bills (7%) were found to be contaminated with bacteria which can cause infections in healthy people. Those bacteria included Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae, both of which can cause pneumonia or blood infections. Fifty-nine bills were contaminated with bacteria that are usually harmless in healthy individuals, but can still trigger serious illness in those with depressed immune systems, such as people undergoing various types of medical treatment or those with HIV. (1) However, Ender stressed that real health risks to the average consumer are pretty low, adding that US dollar bills may be no more or less covered in microbial goo than, say, doorknobs, pens, or computer keyboards. But he points out that US currency, especially ‘finds its way into all areas of the world.’ “With the rapid dissemination of money in the era of drug-resistant bacteria, perhaps a resistance clone could be spread from one geographic location to another,” he concludes. (2)

Philip Turner adds, “Many studies, including two of my own, have shown that money can be effective for germ transaction. ABC’s “20/20” asked me to help them prepare a segment on this issue, and I devised a plan for collecting money from street vendors, shops, restaurants, and other establishments in Chicago, New York City, and Washington, DC. After each transaction, the bills received were put directly into newly purchased wallets, which were then sealed in plastic. The bills were tested and found to be contaminated with germs of fecal, respiratory, and skin origin. Although the risk of contracting a serious infection from dirty money is low, the germ count is high enough to make it easy to contract a cold, a bout of diarrhea, and similar ailments.” (3)

Depending on where you are in the world you might get a different reaction to this issue. Disease experts in northeastern India issued a recent report that said ‘overused and soiled’ currency can transmit tuberculosis, pneumonia and other lung infections. British health authorities and travel guides regularly warn tourists in the region to wash their hand following every financial transaction. (4)

By contrast, Dr. Frank Vriesekoop, from Ballarat University in Australia, reported that there are generally very few pathogenic bacteria on banknotes and coins. He found low levels of common bacteria on the currency that were traded through various food outlets in Australia and New Zealand. He claims that it would be impossible for them to cause diseases like diarrhea, vomiting, or other gastric symptoms as usually believed, as their numbers were so insignificantly small, and that fears about currency hygiene were unwarranted. (5)

So, what can you do? Well, thorough washing of your hands is most important. Or, you could travel to Japan or Australia. In Japan you can go to a ‘clean ATM’ and get your yen pressed between rollers for one-tenth of a second at 392 F, enough to kill many bacteria. (6)

The dirtiness of bills in one reason Australia is leading the charge to use a plastic currency that is supposed to be inhospitable to both germs and counterfeiters and four times as durable as paper notes. Australia introduced the rubber-feeling bills in 1998 and now prints them for 33 other countries, including Romania, Malaysia, and Mexico. (7)

Another option is to launder your money—literally, like the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which took emergency action in an effort to stop the spread of SARS. They put into effect a policy of holding money for twenty-four hours before re-circulating it—long enough for the germs to die. Money is also sterilized by being placed under ultraviolet light for an hour. (1)

Or, you could just carry coins. Patricia Gadsby reports that anything that is very hard and dry isn’t terribly hospitable to bacteria, and many metals have antibacterial activity. Pennies often are sterile, presumably due to the copper, and most US coins are also about 75 percent copper. (6)

Best recommendation is perhaps from Laura Lee, “Then again, none of these extreme measures is really necessary, say the experts. Although the germs on money have the potential to contaminate people, there are no documented cases that it has. Instead of avoiding or cleaning money, the best protection is to wash your hands regularly.” (1)


“The probability that every single person in the United States is carrying drug-tainted money is almost certain,” says Dr. James Woodford, forensic chemist from Atlanta. Woodford cites a 1989 experiment by Miami toxicologist Dr. William Hearn, who gathered 136 dollar bills from banks in twelve cities. Of these 131 had traces of cocaine.

A study conducted at the Houston Advanced Research Center in Texas and the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois examined currency (mostly singles, but also fives, tens, and twenties) in Miami, Chicago, and Houston. This project found an overall 70 to 80 percent contamination rate in the three cities, with single dollar bills more commonly contaminated than the higher denominations. Overall, the more worn the bills, the more coke was found on them. In very old bills, the contamination rate was closer to 90 percent. A recent look at money circulating in northern Illinois, found even higher rates: close to 93 percent of the sample, and 100 percent of the $20 bills tested positive for cocaine. “In fact, most Americans handle small amounts of cocaine every day, not as packets sold by drug dealers, but on the dollar bills that line their pockets,” were conclusions from this study. (6)

J. Oyler and colleagues reported that cocaine was present in 79% of currency samples analyzed in amounts above 0.1 microgram and in 54% of the currency in amounts above 1.0 microgram. Contamination was widespread and was found in single dollar bills from a number of US cities. Cocaine amounts were highly variable and ranged from nanogram to milligram amounts. The highest amount of cocaine detected on a single dollar bill was 1327 milligrams. These results indicated that cocaine contamination of currency is widespread throughout the United States. (9) The reason for this contamination relates to the exchange of illicit cocaine for money by drug dealers. During this exchange there is ample opportunity for paper currency to become contaminated.

Should you worry? Not at all. Cocaine on cash is so commonplace that the courts have ruled that police can no longer use a drug-sniffing dog’s signal to nab a suspect or to confiscate money because it’s deemed drug-related. (7)


1.Laura Lee, 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life, (New York, Broadway Books, 2004), 140
2.“Bacteria Study Gives New Meaning to ‘Dirty Money’”, Reuters, May 23, 2001
3.Philip M. Turner, The Secret Life of Germs, (New York, Pocket Books, 2001), 104
4.Steve Newman, “Currency Health Risk,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 2002, Page C10
5.“Research Shows That Money May Not Harbor Many Pathogenic Bacteria,”, July 13, 2006
6.Patricia Gadsby, “Filthy lucre-money is contaminated with bacteria,” Discover, 19, 76, October 1998
7.Carol X. Vinzant, “The Secret Life of the Dollar,”; accessed January 30, 2008
8.Kathryn Garfield, “Stinking Lucre,” Discover, 28, 15, February 2007
9.J. Oyler, W. D. Darwin, and E. J. Crane, “Cocaine contamination of United States paper currency,” J. Anal. Toxicol., 20, 213, 1996


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