Paper Money

Ig Nobel Prize to study of world’s filthiest notes (Romania’s are worst)

The Ig Nobel Prize is a tongue in cheek award given by Harvard University with the objective of getting people to think seriously about discoveries that at first glance, appear odd if not funny, or even ridiculous.

At the 29th annual awards ceremony in Cambridge on Sept. 12, prizes were presented in 10 categories. The winners in economics were the Dutch microbiologist and infection prevention expert Andreas Voss, his son Timothy, and Habip Gedik, a Turkish scientist, for “Money and Transmission of Bacteria” in Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013.

The paper described a study they did in 2012 at a medical microbiology laboratory in the Netherlands that aimed to identify which country’s bank notes were nastiest in terms of transmitting dangerous bacteria. It concluded that Romania was the clear winner.

The idea came to Andreas Voss while handling a stack of filthy bank notes when he was in China. He proposed to his colleagues that they compare the hygienic attributes of various currencies, including euros, Indian rupees, Croatian kunas, U.S. dollars, Canadian dollars, Romanian leus, Moroccan dirhams, and some other, that he had left in a drawer. They sterilized the subject notes before injecting them with strains of resistant bacteria, including E.coli, MRSA, and VRE (Vancomycin-resistant enterococci, a type that have developed resistance to many antibiotics). The second step was a controlled experiment to check transmission to volunteers contacting the contaminated notes.

The bacterial survival rate was highest for the Romanian leu, the only one with all three bacteria present after both three and six hours of drying. Also, the leu was the only one to retain VRE after a day of drying. The Canadian and U.S. dollars yielded only MRSA; the euro only E. coli, the Indian rupee only VRE. The Croatian kuna did not yield any of the three.

Andreas Voss told about the transmission experiment and said that the Romanian notes looked the filthiest and were. “All the strains survived and ended up on the hands of the tellers. The rupee and the kuna felt dirty but weren’t.”

He added that a note looking dirty did not mean it was a source for infection. “The E.coli strain survived on the euro but didn’t end up on the tellers’ hands.” The U.S. dollar, to him was one of the dirtiest of all, “because it looked clean and crisp but turned out to be a good environment for MRSA.”

Voss thinks the substrate used has an effect on bacterial survival and that he has already been contacted by banks about the research. He suggested that “the Romanian leu was most susceptible to bacteria growth because it was the only banknote in the experiment made from polymers rather than textile-based fibers.”

The researchers’ Ig Noble prize included a clean 10 billion dollar Zimbabwean bank note.

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