The average banknote, an indispensable necessity, is found to be home to “thousands” of bacteria. The combination of its widespread use and constant exchange, however, make paper currency a likely agent for disease transmission, as currency notes contact with toxic elements like blood, fungus, sewage, drugs and unknown substances.
Studies described “unhygienic habits” like tucking notes inside socks and shoes or lubricating fingers with saliva for counting lead to transmission of diseases. Currency samples collected from random spots, including street vendors, grocery shops and canteens across Delhi in sets of Rs.100 and Rs.20, the most and least circulated denominations, were tested. The study confirmed the presence of drug-resistant germs along with “bacterial and viral species”. Contamination is also traced to dust, soil and water.
Sneezing, coughing droplets and touching of tainted hands results in contagion of currency. An individual living in insanitary conditions having unhygienic habits befouls the notes, which act as a vehicle delivering virus to pollute the hands of the next user, causing cross contamination. Studies also indicate that the age of the notes and the material that was used to produce them influence the depth of defile. Various microbes associated with tuberculosis, pneumonia, tonsillitis, peptic ulcers, throat infections and lung disorders had been identified on damaged/soiled notes.
The most common infection persists on surfaces for months and can be continuous source of transmission. Paper currency serves as an ideal breeding ground for microbes for several reasons. Apart from offering more surface area for the organic debris to collect, certain segments like “folds” and “deliberate depressions or projections”, specially designed as a security measure, serve as settling sites for both organisms and debris, which extends the longevity of the microbes.
The shoddy currency-handling culture is widespread, where many do not carry money in wallets, and squeezing of bills is a common sight. Psychologically, people find it hard to associate negative traits such as ill-health with money, which is linked with an individual’s pride and success. We may recognise that money collects germs, but we do not connect disease or illness to the handling of money.
Many western countries have replaced paper currency with plastic bills. Modern polymer banknotes were first developed by Reserve Bank of Australia in 1988, and they even survive a spin in washing machine. Advocates of plastic notes claim that plastic bills would be “safer and cleaner” and insist that they last three-fold longer, conducive to the exchequer. They are nonporous and do not absorb water/sweat, retaining a tendency to “unfold” themselves. No note is counterfeit-proof, but polymer notes, having an average life span of about five years, is more expensive to copy. In Britain, one in seven notes was found to be contaminated with some faecal organism. Plastic notes will be introduced in UK in 2016.
Harmful germs found on counting machines and currency chests environment, pose risk to customers and bankers alike. While ATMs are sullied due to their vast contact by multiple users, many food outlets rely heavily on cash transactions. In Feb. 2014, the Centre announced that one billion plastic notes of Rs.10 denomination would undergo a field trial in five cities selected for their geographical and climate diversity, which include Kochi, Mysore, Jaipur, Shimla and Bhubaneswar. Barring glitches, it will be replicated all over.
Notes in banks/post offices should be disinfected and quarantined by ultraviolet and chemical means, before being circulated, as the issue is a major health concern worldwide. It’s hard to imagine a cashless future, despite the fanciful prospect of digital growth. The World Bank says that, on an average, only 50 per cent of adults worldwide even have a bank account. Hence, it’s time to pioneer plastic notes and dump the flax.