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Your Money's Dirty

Study finds bacteria circulates in dollar bills

WEDNESDAY, May 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- New research gives new meaning to the phrase "filthy lucre": You can pass on germs when you pass the buck.

Tests on paper money collected from food stands and grocery stores revealed colonies of bacteria that are known to cause food poisoning and pneumonia in humans.

"This actually began as a search for a high school project," says Dr. Ted Pope, an internal medicine resident at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. "We asked people at a concession stand at a high school basketball game and at a checkout lane at a grocery store for a dollar bill, and gave them back, hopefully, an uncontaminated new dollar bill."

Pope and his colleagues collected 68 one-dollar bills. They were dipped into a solution that enabled (but didn't promote) bacteria growth. Then the bills sat on a glass slide for 12 to 24 hours while the researchers watched the bugs grow.

"We identified as many as 93 bacteria isolates," Pope reports.

Five of the bills had bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella punemoniae, which can cause infections or pneumonia in healthy people. Another 87 percent of the bills, 59 to be exact, were found to have bacteria including Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Enterobacter, or Escherichia vulneris, which can cause a variety of illnesses, particularly infections in people with compromised immune systems.

Only four of the bills had no detectable amounts of bacteria, Pope says.

The findings were presented today at the 101st general meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Orlando, Fla.

China was the first country in the world to use paper currency. Europe learned of the innovation when Marco Polo described it in 1292. The American colonists began issuing script when Massachusetts created it in 1690 to pay for a military expedition ordered by London. The first modern preprinted checks, which depositors could use to pay anyone, appeared in England in 1781.

Even though paper bills (which are actually a rugged mix of 75 percent cotton, 25 percent linen) are made to take abuse (4,000 folds in each direction), the average U.S. dollar bill lasts a mere 18 months. The job of ensuring that money doesn't get too worn, torn or filthy falls to the Federal Reserve, which tests notes that are returned to it by banks and other financial institutions and yanks the bad ones.

But paper money's not the only thing that's filthy. Just look to all that change jingling in your pocket.

"Coins hold bacteria as well," says Shirley Lowe, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California at San Francisco. "The work I did back in January 1998 not only shows very much the same thing, but also that 18 percent of the coins grew out organisms that we would consider pathogenic."

What To Do

Don't worry too much, Lowe says. "I am not aware of a single case of transmission of a disease from money," she says. "While these organisms have the potential to cause disease, the number of bacteria that would have to be transmitted from a bill or a coin would have to be significant, and that is very unlikely."

For more on money, check out the American Numismatic Association. If you're interested in microbes, visit Pfizer.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ted Pope, M.D., internal medicine resident, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Dayton, Ohio; Shirley Lowe, M.S., assistant clinical professor, University of California, San Francisco, Calif.; American Society for Microbiology abstract
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