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Jewish World Review March 22, 2001 / 27 Adar, 5761

Michael Woods

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Consumer Reports

Dirty money -- Moms of the world have done a fine job of convincing their children that money is dirty.

Most Moms mean it literally, as in scolding, "Wash those hands after handling money. You don't know where it's been."

Is money really dirty and germ-laden?

Coins and paper bills do collect plenty of dirt and grime from the environment as they pass from hand to hand and place to place. That's especially true for paper money, which is made from 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen. It collects dirt like any other piece of unwashed cloth. The average dollar bill has 18 months to do so before it wears out and is pulled from circulation.

Scientific studies show that Dr. Mom, amateur microbiologist, was right about disease-causing microbes on money.

A handful of scientists have tested money for bacteria. One of the first studies, published in 1972 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, concluded: "Money truly is dirty."

Researchers found about 40 percent of bills contained so-called fecal coliform bacteria, indicating contact with human feces.

Only about 10 percent of coins showed similar contamination.

Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) bacteria, which can cause serious infections, turned up in about the same proportion of coins and bills. About one out of every four people carry S. aureus in their nose, and that may be the main source of the buggy money. In addition to causing infections, S. aureus can cause a serious form of food poisoning if it gets into food and grows because the food is not kept hot enough or cold enough.

Another series of studies done in the late 1990s turned up the same bacteria. One found it in 10 percent of bills and 3 percent of coins, and another in 7 percent of bills and almost 20 percent of coins.

Microbiologists who did the studies questioned whether disease-causing bacteria could live long enough, or survive in sufficient numbers, to cause human illness. The biggest risk, scientists said, may be for the millions of people who have weakened immune systems due to diseases and treatment with drugs that suppress body defenses against infections.

Paper money isn't only tainted with "bugs," it's got drugs, too. Scientists have tested paper money for cocaine, using chemistry laboratory instruments that detect mere traces of coke - less than a nanogram. One nanogram is a billionth of a gram. There are about 28 grams in one ounce.

The FBI, for instance, has found traces of cocaine on 90 percent of paper money sampled in Miami, New York, San Francisco and Houston, which it classified as high drug-traffic cities. Other studies have found cocaine in almost 100 percent of bills, especially $20 bills and older, worn bills that have been well-circulated.

The head of one 1998 study actually concluded: "Most Americans handle small amounts of cocaine every day on the dollar bills that line their pockets."

Michael Woods writes for the Toledo Blade. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS