Numismatics, the study of money, takes on an entirely new dimension
in a recent article in Scientific American by Dina Fine Maron.
Money, she discovered, is disgusting. My father always called working
in numismatics as dealing in the “grime of centuries,” and he always
implored me to wash my hands after touching them and before doing
anything else. I don’t think he realized how right he was, but thanks
to Maron, now we do.
A piece titled “Dirty Dollars: The Public Health Case for a Cashless
Society,” summarizes a number of studies that have been made
in recent years with the comment that “perhaps all money should be laundered.”
Connect with Coin World:
Sign up for
our free eNewsletter
Follow us on Twitter
A U.S. Air Force study of 68 $1 notes in 2002 found that 94 percent
of them contained forms of bacteria, some of which could cause
pneumonia or other infections. More recent studies deliver even more
bad news. Part of the problem for U.S. currency is its 75 percent
cotton and 25 percent linen paper. Unlike polymer-based substrates
that are essentially plastic, it is porous and those crevices serve as
a bacterial breeding ground. With paper, the longer a note stays in
circulation, the more contaminated it can become. Since the lower
denominations change hands so frequently, they have greater exposure
to pathogens, some of which can survive on them for months.
Maron went on to delineate what she called a “rogue’s gallery” of
hazardous little microbes that have made their way from noses, hands,
and aprons onto money, as well as a variety of yeasts and molds that
made a similar journey. Among them: the antibiotic-resistant bacteria
responsible for MRSA that can create life-threatening blood
infections; e coli bacteria; and another that causes diarrhea, urinary
tract infections and kidney failure. Not surprisingly, traces of
cocaine and heroin have also been found.
The Wall Street Journal mentions an ongoing, as yet
unpublished study at New York University’s Center for Genomics and
Systems Biology that found about 3,000 types of organisms on a sample
of only 80 $1 bills. In addition to bacteria linked to pneumonia, food
poisoning and staph infections, they also found bills with DNA traces
from various animals, including a white rhino.
The Federal Reserve System said there are no plans to change the
paper composition and cited a 1982 study that showed a poor survival
rate for flu viruses on environmental surfaces as proof that currency
was not a good transmission agent.
The story also makes a pitch for a cashless society as a public
health measure rather than as a matter of crime prevention or economic
policy. It says card-based payment systems eliminate the need for
handling money, and concludes that its better to clean keypads.