In honor of NYU’s Dirty Money Project, I’m posting a few particularly germ-laden paragraphs from The End of Money:

In the science-fiction novel The White Plague by Dune author Frank Herbert, a molecular biologist decides to exact revenge for his family’s murder by poisoning paper money and distributing it in countries where the bad guys in the story live. The contamination spreads out of control and becomes a global plague. At one point, the U.S. president declares: “We’ve decontaminated and replaced the money to the point where we can start lifting the quarantine on the banks.” Unfortunately, the plan falters.

Banknotes and coins harbor all kinds of bugs.2 Traces of the bacteria staphylococcus have been detected on 94 percent of all U.S. dollar bills. In 2003, hysteria in China that banknotes could spread the SARS virus proved to be unfounded, but the Bank of China still decided that any bills it received would be held for twenty-four hours—the estimated lifespan of the virus—before being released back into the ocean of circulation. And Swiss researchers have found that moderate concentrations of flu virus could survive on banknotes for up to three days. When they tested the same bugs “in the presence of respiratory mucus,” which sounds like a really fun experiment, they determined that the virus lived for up to seventeen days. “The unexpected stability of influenza virus in this nonbiological environment,” wrote the scientists, “suggests that unusual environmental contamination should be considered in the setting of pandemic preparedness.” Could circulating banknotes help spread a
future plague?

When I forwarded that study to a friend at the Centers for Disease Control, she was unimpressed. “Are the researchers sucking on banknotes or inserting them in their noses?” she asked. Without a perfect storm of transmission conditions—someone sneezes on a banknote, doesn’t allow it to dry, stores it someplace dark and humid, doesn’t rub it on other material like a leather wallet or pants pocket—maybe, and only maybe, enough viral particles could survive to infect the next person handling those bills. Unless people start using greenbacks as handkerchiefs, she told me, whatever germs do reside on cash or coins should die a quick death.*5 That was reassuring, yet a friend who recently returned from Africa was kind enough to inform me that people in some of the more dangerous parts of the continent store cash in their underwear. As smart as my contact at the CDC might be, I suspect that when assuring me of cash’s harmlessness, not even she was thinking of banknotes stored in skivvies.

AuthorDavid Wolman