Does Money Need Laundering?

24 May 2001 7:00 pm

Dirty money. Pathogens can hitch rides on dollar bills.

ORLANDO, FLORIDA--Perhaps it's just what the moribund dot-com economy needs to shore up electronic commerce: evidence that the old economy is a dirty, messy business that could make you sick. Ordinary dollar bills contain a wide variety of potential pathogens, researchers reported here on 23 May at a meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. But don't bleach your wallet just yet.

Even honestly earned money was widely suspected to be dirty, says microbiologist Peter Ender of the 74th Medical Group at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Still, few people had ever bothered to find out how gross greenbacks get. So Ender and his colleagues solicited 68 dollar bills from passersby in two public places and placed each bill in a broth that they incubated for 12 to 24 hours. They found that five of the bills contained pathogenic bugs such as Klebsiella pneumonia, which can cause pneumonia and other diseases, and Staphylococcus aureus, the agent that causes staph infections. On 59 other bills, they detected a variety of potential pathogens, including Enterobacter and Acinetobacter species, which rarely cause human disease but have been reported to do so in hospitals and immunocompromised patients.

What's the bottom line? Well, luckily there isn't really one, Ender confesses. Money probably occasionally makes people sick, but the same goes for doorknobs and countless other objects. (However, money tends to circulate, Ender notes, whereas doorknobs do not.) The study grew out of a high school project of one of Ender's colleague's children, and it should not be taken as a public health warning, he says: "The one thing I worry about is that people make too much of this."

And besides, there's no ready alternative to cash. Credit cards? Think about the nasty bugs they could pick up as they're swiped through the machine. Really, the only totally safe way to buy is on the Internet--as long as nobody touches your mouse.

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