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What’s On This?: Cash

Find out what kind of weird shit is crawling around on Abe Lincoln’s beard

We’ve all heard how dirty money can be, and I don’t mean that in either a “Stormy Daniels payout” kind of way or a “I’m pretty sure my retirement is being funded by blood diamonds” kind of way. No, I mean it in a “Who the fuck touched this before me?” kind of way. I mean, we know that it’s got to be gross, yet we never think twice about picking it up off the ground or receiving it back from that gyro vendor who clearly seemed to have some kind of skin disorder — we just take it and stuff it in our pockets.

Now, I know that your behavior around money isn’t going to change no matter what I tell you is on it. If every dollar bill was covered in human sperm, dog shit and cockroach vomit, it still wouldn’t change things, but for the sake of morbid curiosity, let’s find out what really going on with our cash on a microscopic level.

“Anything that our hands touch will be contaminated with microbes — money is no exception,” explains “The Germ Guy” Jason Tetro, author of The Germ Files and host of the Super Awesome Science Show podcast. To get into the nitty-gritty of what you’ll find on that money, Tetro cites a 2014 study from the magazine Future Microbiology, which shows that just about every gross thing you can think of is going to be found on money. In addition to harmless environmental bacteria, here are the infectious agents they found on paper money:

  • Escherichia coli
  • Bacillus sp.
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Coagulase-negative staphylococci
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa
  • Pseudomonas sp.
  • Salmonella sp.
  • Enterococcus sp.
  • Streptococcus sp.
  • Klebsiella sp.
  • Proteus mirabilis
  • Acinetobacter sp.
  • Aerobacter sp.
  • Yersinia sp.
  • Enterobacter spp.
  • Shigella sp.
  • Vibrio sp.
  • Aspergillus sp.
  • Candida spp.
  • Fusarium spp.
  • Rhizopus spp.
  • Penicillium spp.
  • Ascaris lumbricoides
  • Enterobius vermicularis
  • Trichuris trichiura
  • Taenia spp.

Basically, you can catch a whole bunch of shit from this, but to make it a little easier, let’s just focus on what they found on American paper money. We’ll start with Escherichia coli, better known as E.coli, which you probably know about from just about half of all food recalls. E. coli is a natural environmental bacteria that’s also found in the guts of humans and animals — usually it’s harmless, but it can give you a nasty infection and diarrhea.

Then there’s Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause staph infections, including a really nasty one known as MRSA, which is super resistant to antibiotics. There’s also Klebsiella, which comes from poop and can cause pneumonia; Coagulase-negative staphylococci, an environmental bacteria that can cause infections; Pseudomonas, which Tetro says live in the soil and on your skin and is pretty harmless, but can infect an open wound; Acinetobacter is an environmental bacteria from soil and water that can house viruses really well; and finally there’s Salmonella, which comes from poop and is responsible for whatever food contamination that E. Coli isn’t responsible for. The CDC says that 1.2 million people, every year get sick from salmonella, and they experience diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps.

Had enough? Well, there’s more. According to TIME, another study found vaginal bacteria and pet DNA on paper money, and in a study of 10 $1 bills from 10 different U.S. cities, eight of them had cocaine on them. TIME explains that bills generally stay in circulation for up to 15 years, so pretty much the entire time they’re collecting different shit along the way that never gets washed off.

As for coins, that study from Future Microbiology found much of the same stuff that it did on paper money, but you can add to the list the following bacteria: Bacillus, which is related to anthrax; Enterobacter, Micrococcus and Stenotrophomonas maltophilia, all of which can cause infections; Serratia and Moraxella, both of which can cause meningitis; and Proteus mirabilis, which can give you kidney stones. Ouch.

Tetro explains that when it comes to coins versus paper money, both can house bacteria pretty well. “What you need is a surface that has some stickiness to it and also a three-dimensional architecture to allow for the bacteria to settle. Both paper and metals offer that, so you’re going to get contamination regardless,” says Tetro. There’s a difference, though: Paper money, which has more surface area and is more difficult to clean, will absorb more different kinds of bacteria, but, coins would be more likely to make you sick as they can more easily wipe off that surface and contaminate your hand.

Now, realistically speaking, Tetro says that you’re more than likely not going to get sick from money, as many of these bacteria die after exposure to the atmosphere. “The likelihood of getting sick is fairly low, even if you smell the money… or lick it,” he says.

That said, there’s a fairly common scenario that can make you sick if people aren’t careful. The study that I keep referring to from Future Microbiology was entitled “Paper Money and Coins as Potential Vectors of Transmissible Disease,” and it concluded that contaminated money is more of a health risk while the simultaneous handling of food is involved — since it found E. coli and Salmonella on money, that suggested poor hygienic practices by the food handlers. As for those gloves you may find some food preppers wearing, they’re really not going to make much of a difference in what’s being passed around unless they change the gloves every time they touch money, and we all know that’s not happening.

Like I said earlier, obviously this isn’t going to change how we get our, uh, change, but maybe now you can more fully embrace our march toward a cashless society. While Tetro explains that your credit card isn’t going to be much cleaner than the cash, he does say that at least it will mostly be covered in your own shit, as opposed to everyone else’s.