Can I get sick from physical money?
July 27, 2004 11:03 AM   Subscribe

Can banknotes spread disease and germs? [inside]

It just occured to me today as I took some slightly crumpled notes from an atm that I was then going to use them to pay for lunch and without anywhere to wash my hands I was them going to directly put the sandwich in my mouth. Can anything nasty be passed from the note onto my fingers then onto the food and then into my mouth? Could I catch a cold this way, for example?
posted by feelinglistless to Health & Fitness (25 answers total)
I'm sure you could. I remember a study about ATMs and germs - and that most ATMs are essentially covered in feces.
posted by agregoli at 11:25 AM on July 27, 2004

Theoretically, yes--just as with touching anything else that someone else had touched. Interesting that you focused on the banknotes--but does it bother you that someone else has touched the keys on the ATM? That someone else has touched the handle of the door to the restaurant where you're eating? What about the change you received upon paying for your lunch?

All of these--plus a hundred other things that you touched that someone else also touched--is a potential source of germs. And yet, even for all that, getting sick is an uncommon occurrence. Why? Well, for one thing, most of the "germs" floating around are harmless to humans. More importantly, you have an immune system. A damn impressive one, if I might say so. Not perfect, to be sure, but it takes care of an awful awful lot of the stuff you come into contact with every day.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:28 AM on July 27, 2004

Also, many germs need a warm, moist environment to survive long enough to be a problem. I'm sure money from ATMs and bank tellers are all covered in germs, but mostly dead, and no more dangerous than the average door handle. However, IANA(CleanFreak), but taking money from the sweaty teenaged hands of the sandwich counter guy makes my stomach turn (sometimes literally probably.)
posted by dness2 at 11:40 AM on July 27, 2004

Anyone see the episode of Penn & Teller: Bullshit! in which they swabbed a guy's hairy ass and tried to culture the germs they found there? They discovered that even inches from the crack, there aren't really enough germs to be worried about.
posted by kindall at 11:56 AM on July 27, 2004

Ewwwww, kindall.

I'm reminded of a line from The Stand: "He tipped the waitress with a dollar bill that was crawling with death."
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:07 PM on July 27, 2004

Yes and no.

Many odd things get embedded in money. Take at least 4 small bills and do a test for cocaine on them. At least 1 will be positive. :-D

I'd not worry about it, then again, if I were going to eat, I'd just wash my hands by habit.
posted by shepd at 12:12 PM on July 27, 2004

If this is the sort of thing you worry about, you either have a very secure life, or you're a borderline clean freak.

Germs are on everything. EVERYTHING. If they weren't, your immune system would be so weak and flabby it would be destroyed by the first real bug to come along. I recall a PBS (or CBC?) show once where they claimed that if you removed everything on Earth that wasn't a bacteria, you could still see the planet.

...but that doesn't mean you shouldn't bother to wash your hands. Wash your hands! (but don't bother with "antibacterial" soap, because the regular stuff is just fine.)
posted by aramaic at 12:18 PM on July 27, 2004

(the trace cocaine study results)
posted by whatzit at 12:25 PM on July 27, 2004

Frank Herbert seems to think so. If memory serves, in The White Plauge the geneticist spreads his creation via money changers in different international airports.

I'm not spoiling the book, since this happens early on and really isn't what the story's about.
posted by Tacodog at 12:57 PM on July 27, 2004

meant to add: thankfully, that's just sci fi.
posted by Tacodog at 12:59 PM on July 27, 2004

I've heard that using antibacterial soap is a no-no, as the bacteria it kills are more or less harmless to us, but wide use of antibacterials will cause them to evolve into a super race of bacteria that will rise up and overwhelm all forms of life as we know it, or something. Any truth to this?
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:11 PM on July 27, 2004

I read recently somewhere that putting banknotes up your nose is a good way of spreading Hepatitis.
posted by DelusionsofGrandeur at 1:21 PM on July 27, 2004

Inappropriate use of antibacterials, over time, creates an environment that selects for bacteria that are resistant to the antibacterial agent. As non-resistant bacteria die, the resistant strain becomes widespread.

...if the resistant strain is also pathogenic, you have a problem.

Similarly, if you have two groups of competing bacteria, and wipe out the harmless ones but leave most of the pathogenic ones alive, you also have a problem.

This is why "competitive colonization" is a useful technique for fixing stomach problems -- rather than wiping out all of the bacteria, you purposefully ingest friendly bacteria. The idea is that the friendly guys will simply take up all the living space, so to speak, and squeeze out the bad guys. This is why live-culture yogurt is sought after, and why people buy acidophilus pills.
posted by aramaic at 1:25 PM on July 27, 2004

...and when I said "stomach" I really meant "intestinal"...
posted by aramaic at 1:26 PM on July 27, 2004

I personally think of that line from "The Stand" almost every time I get receive money from a cash register drawer; and I often wonder about the dynamic of currency exchange in a retail lines. I don't think of myself as a germ-freak, but I avoid the McDonald's down the street, where (as my brother put it) you're probably getting bills that were collected all day in the sock of the homeless guy who's always out front.

U.S. currency IS filthy. However, recently I read that viruses of the common cold variety -- which live very well on surfaces like counter tops and the like -- didn't subsist very long on a cotton handkerchief. Our currency is made of linen. Maybe it's less hazardous then we think.

Here's a piece from ABC that calls currency "too dry" to support germ life.
posted by coelecanth at 1:44 PM on July 27, 2004

From New Scientist a few years ago..

Most US dollar bills are bacteria farms, cultivating dozens of potentially dangerous pathogens, a study in Ohio has revealed. The finding raises the possibility that paper money could be transporting antibiotic resistant bacteria quickly from one geographic area to another, say the researchers.
posted by jasper411 at 2:31 PM on July 27, 2004

You know, I wouldn't "pleasure myself" with banknotes or put them up under my eyelids or anything.
posted by sonofsamiam at 2:42 PM on July 27, 2004

If this is the sort of thing you worry about, you either have a very secure life, or you're a borderline clean freak.

I know it sounds like one those paranoid questions Monk might ask, but it is bizarre how some people are really, really CLEAN (for example, the girl I lived with at Uni who in one of the few conversations I had with her said that she didn't believe in dirt in the same way that some people 'don't believe in God' -- what you mean if you don't believe dust exists you won't have to clean it up?) but will happily use yes ATMs and currency that have been through hundreds or thousands of hands. My always says that my Gran used to say that everyone should have a bit of dirt once in a while. I think what she was thinking of is we say bring it on to the harmless stuff the ugly man-eating stuff will stay away.
posted by feelinglistless at 2:49 PM on July 27, 2004

Uh, feces is on virtually everything. (Hope this is post-lunch/pre-dinner for most of you.)

Also, kindall: there are plenty of germs all over your body. Staph aureus is all over, and is the main cause of a "staph infection," and a major cause of bacterial endocarditis. IV drug users get this sometimes, due to not cleaning the area of skin before they inject.

The point is, healthy people's immune systems (and skin) stop these bacteria (and many viruses) pretty damn well.
posted by gramcracker at 2:55 PM on July 27, 2004

aramaic: My molecular bio professor once made the claim that there are more non-human cells on and in the human body (ie: bacteria) than there are human ones.
posted by gramcracker at 3:00 PM on July 27, 2004

From my sample size of one, I note that I catch far far fewer colds now that I've developed a habit of washing my hands before eating anything when I've been out in public.

We have health regulations in BC that require workers in sandwich shops and the like to wear disposable plastic gloves. Nothing worse than some cretinous employee handling money then spreading those germs into the mayonnaise. Shudder.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:38 PM on July 27, 2004

Can someone prove that, "Uh, feces is on virtually everything."?
posted by pissfactory at 4:52 AM on July 28, 2004

I can. Since I invented the aerosol version of shit-in-a-can and used the proceeds to send out an army of sprayers across the world.
posted by biffa at 5:39 AM on July 28, 2004

Interesting that you focused on the banknotes--but does it bother you that someone else has touched the keys on the ATM? That someone else has touched the handle of the door to the restaurant where you're eating? What about the change you received upon paying for your lunch?

most of those things get cleaned every now and then, though... although of course I agree that it's irrational to get overly worked up about dirt and germs - welcome to the earth. It's made of dirt!
posted by mdn at 9:19 AM on July 28, 2004

many of the banknotes i own get washed (i keep notes in a roll in my pocket and forget to take them out when i wash the trousers).
posted by andrew cooke at 11:19 AM on July 28, 2004

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