How Dirty is Your Money?

From, October 7, 2003.

HONG KONG, China (CNN) –“Money is like muck” the British philosopher Francis Bacon once said.

Even though his words are hundreds of years old, they accurately describe many of the bank notes we use today, which some health experts have labelled as a breeding ground for bacteria.

While most consumers don’t know their wallets and purses may be teeming with bacteria, CNN discovered some grizzly findings after putting a few notes from seven Asian nations under the microscope.

The first thing Desmond O’Toole, a bacteriologist at Hong Kong’s City University, noticed was the wear and tear of the notes, which offered hiding places for germs.

“You get nooks and crannies on the note where things like fecal contamination can lodge,” O’Toole, an associate professor in the Department of Biology and Chemistry, told CNN.

Test results on older notes from Hong Kong, China, India, Pakistan, Cambodia and the Philippines showed thousands of bacteria.

O’Toole says without more lab work, it’s hard to say how much of a risk these bacteria pose to humans. But older notes with a higher count are more likely to cause infections.

Very, very unpleasant

One Chinese banknote he tested was carrying 178,000 different types of bacteria and had 9,500 organisms from the e-coli family.

“When these organisms get inside you they can cause chronic disease and infections of the gut which are very, very unpleasant,” O’Toole says.

The newer notes O’Toole tested were less contaminated.

Strangely enough, banknotes from the secretive and impoverished communist state of North Korea were almost bacteria-free.

And one crisp note withdrawn from a Hong Kong cash machine had a fairly low bacteria-count of 10,000.

Some Asian banks have made hygiene a priority. In Japan UFJ bank heats up its notes before dispensing them, which the bank says helps kill bacteria.

24-hour holding pattern

Following the SARS outbreak in China, some banks adopted proactive measures to prevent the spread of the virus through the handling of banknotes.

The People’s Bank of China asked all branches to sterilize notes and keep them in the bank for 24 hours before distribution. More new notes were also produced to limit the circulation of old money.

“Handling money is like shaking hands with somebody,” O’Toole says.

Although O’Toole was testing just a handful of notes, his results reinforce other studies.

U.S. researchers who looked at 68 bills collected in the Dayton area found more than 90 percent of dollar bills had colonies of bacteria.

Scientists say consumers everywhere need to take precautions by improving personal hygiene, or even washing their money.

That would be one way to clean out your bank account.

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