The Stamp and Coin Place Blog: connecting the past and present of stamp and coin collecting, and looking to the future.

Dirty Money

Have you ever wondered where your money has been? Well, I can tell you that it is probably dirtier then you think.

The anatomy of our banknotes is concerning, more so than that of our copper coinage, which appears to be less hospitable to bacteria. U.S. notes, made from a blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent linen, may be more attractive to bacteria than other countries’ currency. Polymer-based banknotes used in Australia and Canada have been found to be “cleaner,” meaning more resistant to dirt and bacteria, than cotton-based ones. There are no plans to change the composition of American money, however, the Federal Reserve wrote in an e-mail responding to queries. The Fed, which oversees the nation’s monetary policy and sets interest rates, said U.S. currency is not a very effective transmission agent for germs. It cited a 1982 study about survival of influenza viruses on environmental surfaces. 

Microbes, or microscopic organisms, are found on many surfaces – from restrooms, airplanes and buses. They are transferred through human contact. And money could serve as a mode of transportation for bacteria – posing a threat to human health.

Last year alone, there were 23,000 deaths caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With the studies that have been taken, finding that flu viruses can persist on banknotes. Swiss researchers found in one 2008 study that flu viruses, which typically survive for a couple days on Swiss francs, can survive up to 17 days if accompanied by mucus, possibly spelling trouble for folks who handle cash after someone else with a runny nose has handled it as well. Still other studies of cash from around the world specifically point to high bacterial counts on money handled by food workers or on hospital grounds.

The dollar bill is home to thousands of microbes — bacteria, fungi and pathogens that can cause such illnesses as skin infections, stomach ulcers and food poisoning, according to scientists. Researchers at New York University have identified as many as 3,000 kinds of bacteria living on $1 bills in a new comprehensive study examining DNA on paper currency. Researchers at New York University have identified as many as 3,000 kinds of bacteria living on $1 bills in a new comprehensive study.

Money has a large role in daily life. Although we often touch a variety of objects that could be capable of absorbing, harboring and transmitting infectious organisms, money seems to be present often and it is often close to food. “It is more probable to handle money and then food than to touch a subway pole or a commonly used doorknob and then food,” notes Manolis Angelakis, an infectious diseases researcher at Aix–Marseille University, who has studied dirty money. There is no definitive research that connects enough dots to 100% prove that dirty money actually makes people sick, but we do have strong circumstantial evidence: influenza, norovirus, rhinovirus and others have all been transmitted via hand-to-hand or surface-to-hand contact in studies, suggesting pathogens could readily travel a hand-money-hand route. In one study 10 subjects handled a coffee cup contaminated with rhinovirus—and half subsequently developed an infection, so next time you are counting through your money, maybe wash your hands before you decide to eat.

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