Q: Chuck, I heard that one of the most comprehensive studies concerning bacteria on money was just conducted. In a world in which we're trying to stay safer from microbes, is handling money giving us more than purchasing power? And what can we really do about it, seeing as money is everywhere anyway? — "Show Me the Money Microbes" in Syracuse, N.Y.
A: Brace yourself; this column will get creepy. But it's time we face the cold hard reality about potential dangers on the surface of cold hard cash.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on dirty money. Not the type of dirty money being obtained unlawfully or immorally but germ-ridden cash that millions of us handle every day.
The article, "Why You Shouldn't Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is," reported on the first across-the-board analysis of the DNA on dollar bills. Researchers from New York University's Dirty Money Project identified 3,000 types of bacteria on them — many times more than were found in previous microscope-based studies.
Jane Carlton, director of genomic sequencing at NYU's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology, was shocked herself: "It was quite amazing to us. We actually found that microbes grow on money."
Here are some examples of what scientists in this most recent NYU study found, and keep in mind that they "could identify only about 20 percent of the non-human DNA they found because so many microorganisms haven't yet been cataloged in genetic data banks."
Eighty $1 bills randomly obtained from a bank in New York yielded about 1.2 billion DNA pieces. The Journal reported: "About half of it was human. The researchers found bacteria, viruses, fungi and plant pathogens. They saw extremely minute traces of anthrax and diphtheria. They identified DNA from horses and dogs — even a snippet or two of white rhino DNA."
It added: "Easily the most abundant species they found is one that causes acne. Others were linked to gastric ulcers, pneumonia, food poisoning and staph infections. ... Some carried genes responsible for antibiotic resistance."
And to add insult to injury, consider that cocaine is currency's "most common contaminate" in the U.S., based upon a 2009 University of Massachusetts Dartmouth study that said traces of it can be found on up to 90 percent of paper money circulating in America. Shocker?!
If you think moving abroad is the answer to escaping these microbes, consider that research on European currency conducted by a team of scientists from Oxford University revealed that an average piece of money could harbor a staggering 26,000 bacteria. And a study conducted at the University Hospitals of Geneva found that certain flu virus cells could last for up to 17 days on bills.
That's why in a recent series of columns, "6 Places You're Most Likely to Get Sick," I noted how the bank rivals public bathrooms in terms of the myriad bacteria there. University of Arizona researchers also found that each key on an ATM keyboard harbors an average of 1,200 germs, including E. coli and cold and flu viruses. (Those numbers make one wonder how much is really being deposited and withdrawn from banks!)
I guess it should be good news that a $1 bill, which is printed on a cotton-linen blend, doesn't last longer than roughly 21 months in our currency exchange world, according to The Wall Street Journal. At the same time, the U.S. government needs to recognize and respond to the fact that more and more countries are printing bank notes on more germ-resistant materials, such as sheets of flexible plastic polymer film.
For example, in its 2010 study in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease, the University of Ballarat discovered fewer bacteria on polymer bills than it did on cotton-based ones. On the other hand, scientific research published last year in Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Control found that some germs survive longer on the plastic bank notes.
Mostly, we all need to remember that it's human touch that fires the fuel for germ growth on our currency. As Brown University physicist Nabil Lawandy, president of Spectra Systems Corp., said, "we provide the nutrients when we handle the bank notes."
So what can we personally do about this germ-filled currency conundrum? Here are four primary ways out of our microorganism financial fiasco:
First, keep your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth. Of all your body parts, your hands are the most effective transporters of disease. And yes, that's another good reason to quit that nail-biting habit.
Second, keep a small bottle of sanitizer with you and use it frequently, before and after cash transactions. And if you keep cash bundled in any form, you might give it a periodic spray of disinfectant, especially when you take it out of your pocket or purse at night.
Third, consider using a more open-air money clip or some other cash-carrying method, because "a body-temperature wallet is a petri dish," according to Philippe Etienne, managing director of Innovia Security Pty Ltd., which creates special bank-note paper for 23 countries. Keeping bills dry also lessens the multiplying of bacteria.
Fourth, carry less currency and use your debit card more often. Utilize more electronic banking and other online financial transactions for your commerce and bill paying. In today's always-connected world, however, also ensure that you have comprehensive identity theft protection from watchdog services such as LifeLock.
The bottom line to our bucks is this: If we're exacting with our finances, shouldn't we be the same with our health?
Write to Chuck Norris ([email protected]) with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook's "Official Chuck Norris Page." He blogs at http://chucknorrisnews.blogspot.com. To find out more about Chuck Norris and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.