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Will handling cash put you at risk for the coronavirus?

US News & World Report -  Money logo US News & World Report - Money 3/18/2020 Molly McCluskey
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Yes, money is covered in germs. No, coronavirus isn't making it worse.

Find a penny, pick it up. All day long, you'll have good luck. So goes the old superstition that luck can pass from one person to another, through a simple coin. But as the coronavirus sweeps the globe, found currency might not be so lucky after all.

Anyone who has ever wondered where, exactly, their money has been before it found its way into their pockets or purses might be feeling more germophobic than usual lately. That's because coins, and their paper cousins, are notoriously dirty under the best scenario. But there's both good news and bad for those looking to minimize their risk.

"Coronavirus is not likely to make money dirtier than usual," says Dr. Danielle Ompad, an infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor at New York University's School of Global Public Health.

The U.S. government has procedures in place for currency that has been contaminated due to exposure to mold-forming liquids, sewage, certain chemicals, tear gas, bioterrorists agents and "exposure to blood, urine, feces or any other bodily fluids, including removal from any body cavity, corpse or animal," according to the Federal Reserve. Contaminated currency was so common after the flooding caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita that the Fed issued special guidelines, and separate parcels, for exchanging it, lest it contaminate other currency en route.

The U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing estimates that it handles more than $30 million of contaminated or mutilated currency each year, which it identifies as "... currency which has been severely damaged – to the extent that its value is questionable or security features are missing. Currency can become mutilated in any number of ways. The most common causes are fire, water, chemicals, and explosives; animal, insect, or rodent damage; and petrification or deterioration by burying."

Unfortunately, there are no similar procedures for currency contaminated by germs. And physical currency, with its movement from person to person, and through devices ranging from toll booths to slot machines to cash counters, can be covered in just about anything. One study in the 1990s sampling dollar bills from cities throughout the U.S. found varying amounts of cocaine residue.

"These results indicated that cocaine contamination of currency is widespread throughout the United States," the study found, "and is likely to be primarily a result of cross-contamination from other contaminated currency and from contaminated money-counting machines."

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Another study from 2014 examining currencies from around the world found both coin and paper currency were highly contaminated with various forms of bacteria.

"An individual living in unhygienic conditions having unhygienic habits will contaminate the notes with bacteria and these notes will act as a vehicle delivering bacteria to contaminate the hands of the next user," Agersew Alemu, of the University of Gondar in Ethiopia, who authored the study, wrote. "Improper hand washing after using the toilet, counting paper notes using saliva, coughing and sneezing on hands then exchanging money, and placement or storage of paper notes on dirty surfaces leads to the contamination and these notes will act as a vehicle delivering bacteria to contaminate the hands of the next user."

But the answer isn't as easy as simply quitting cash. For one thing, credit cards are equally sickening.

"Both credit cards and money are easily contaminated," Ompad says. However, she advises businesses not to rush to implement cashless systems. "Going cashless is not an option for a significant amount of people. A lot of people don't have credit cards or bank accounts."

While it might be tempting for those who are social distancing to simply order everything online and have it dropped off at their door, doing so also raises issues.

"Not everyone has the capability or internet service to order things online," Ompad says. "Ordering things online can be more expensive once you factor in delivery fees, and let's be honest, there's a lot of price gouging going on right now online."

And whether it's the coronavirus, the common cold, a flu or whatever superbug is bound to come next, the answer to minimizing your risk while handling cash or credit cards is simple, says Ompad: Wash your hands.

"People underestimate the public health impact of hand-washing," Ompad says. "You shouldn't feel like you're not doing anything if you're only washing your hands."

"This is a dramatic pandemic and people think they need to do something dramatic to protect themselves. But this simple act is really powerful, and we should all be doing it all the time anyway," Ompad says.

Copyright 2020 U.S. News & World Report

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