Oral Health Group

Dirty Money

June 1, 2003
by Janice Goodman, DDS

Consider the following scenario. It’s Sunday night and you take your family out for a treat at a favorite fast food restaurant. While standing in line, you notice the server is really into her hair, which she has re-arranged while waiting for the fries to be ready. She has pretty bad skin and that cold sore looks pretty well closed over, and she keeps licking at it. You place your order and pay for it with cash. She hands you change consisting of a couple of small bills and two loonies. You deposit the loonies into the palms of each of your two youngsters’ hands, instructing them to hold on tight to them because after they eat all their dinner they can come to the counter themselves to buy an ice cream cones. Then you go to the table where your spouse is waiting with the hungry toddler to whom you hand a fry, to keep him happy while you unwrap and distribute dinner to your family that your server has just had her hands on. You put the change back into your wallet and chow down. Does this make you sick? Actually, the answer seems obvious, but scientific research is a bit scant.

There are only a couple of quite limited studies on bacterial contamination of money. In the 1970s, Abrams and Waterman reported contamination on 13 percent of coins and 42 percent of money. Then recently, in December 2002, Pope et al published a study with results of bacterial colonies on 94 percent of paper money. Breaking this number down further: 7 percent of the bills had pathogens that could affect healthy hosts and 87 percent of the bills were potentially pathogenic to hospitalized or immunocompromised people and only 6 percent of the paper bills showed no significant bacteria. (It should be noted that the study was done on American one-dollar bills, which apparently have an average lifespan of 18 months.)


Although these studies do not necessarily document person-to-person transmission of bacteria during the exchange of money, they do strongly suggest that money plays a role in the transmission of antibiotic resistant and potentially harmful microbes. Some bugs found on the money were hardy and could survive for prolonged periods of time. Other microorganisms named in this study, although not known to cause human disease in healthy hosts, can colonize in an individual and may later cause clinically significant infections when the individual becomes immunocompromised or hospitalized.

If there is a silver lining to the SARS cloud that is over Canada, let’s hope that we become more aware of the microbial war we all wage each and every day. Perhaps Canada could be a role model when it comes to changing certain behaviors that will reduce our risks. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an article that stated that smoking and obesity were the number one and two factors that affect life span. In 1992, infectious diseases were named the third largest cause of death. From 1980 to 1992, the death rate from infectious diseases increased by 85 percent. So much for relying on antibiotics.

Perhaps, the next time someone coughs into their hand and then offers it to you, you can subtly avoid the gesture without appearing rude. Better still, maybe gloves will come back into fashion as they were in previous generations. Now you have a great excuse not to have to kiss all your not-so-favorite relatives at the next family function. Keep that bottle of disinfecting wipes, gel or foam close by and be a role model, lead by example. Washing your hands is key. That includes washing hands after removing your gloves. Consider using credit cards over cash and carry a pen on you to avoid the cashier’s communal one. Next time someone calls you filthy rich, you can reply, “Not really…I wash my hands frequently!”

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