How Dirty Is Your Money?

The words “dirty money” mean different things to different people. You may think of dirty money as money illegally earned, transferred, or used. Typically, this is money obtained from criminal or corrupt sources that makes its way into our commercial banking system. Most of this is “laundered,” a term that implies making dirty money clean.

But let's talk about dirty money and laundered money in more literal terms. With the recent SARS outbreak behind us and the present flu season in full swing, we don't want our dirty money simply laundered; we want it “spotless” and “germ-free.”

It may come as no surprise, but most of the money you exchange each day is contaminated heavily with various microbes including salmonella and E. coli. The older the bills, the more microbes are present.

However, there is no “safe” bill; not even the new printed currency promises lower levels of microbe contamination. Steps to reduce the level of bacteria on money are being taken both from a money processing perspective as well as by utilizing antimicrobial materials.

The outbreak of SARS in China last year made a jittery situation even more jittery in parts of Asia. If you have traveled to Japan or Hong Kong, you would notice many people routinely wear protective masks to limit airborne infection. Is this what we will all look like in the near future?

These events have created a demand for antimicrobial products in many phases of our lives. But what products do we encounter on a daily basis that constitute a microbe risk to us? You wouldn't use someone else's tissue to wipe your nose, but you would not hesitate to exchange paper currency.

One problem with paper currency has always been that it lasts less than a few years in circulation. But what's more, paper money is problematic as it provides a large surface area as a breeding ground for bacteria.

Microbe-infested money adds fuel to the argument to replace the US dollar with a coin. This would not only save millions of dollars annually but provide a less problematic dollar in the workplace.

A typical bill can have thousands of different types of bacteria and can be the source of disease and infection, according to medical experts. So, what can be done to improve the situation?

Recent steps have been taken to reduce currency contamination through money-handling machines. Some ATMs now can clean and sanitize the money before it comes spitting out of the machine. They can reduce microbes on currency by destroying the bacteria by heat or short exposure to antimicrobials.

In addition, we can improve our personal hygiene and wash our hands after we handle money, but the real solution lies in providing paper, inks, or coatings with antimicrobial properties that will keep our money “clean” without having to have it “laundered.”

There are various antimicrobial products available that can be incorporated into paper, film, or coatings that provide different degrees of protection. Not all microbes are equal, and the methods to control them can differ. Whereas it may be easy to control E. coli, certain strains of mold are more difficult and require higher levels of treatment.

Among the variety of antimicrobial products available, inorganic antimicrobial materials offer good protection characteristics and are very resistant to weather.

Among inorganic antimicrobials are zeolites, which can be armed with copper, silver, and zinc, as well as other metal ions. They can be incorporated into the paper or coated on its surface to offer long-term antimicrobial properties.

Commercial inks and coatings that contain antimicrobials have been commercialized and likely will find a role to play in currency and similar applications that require paper laundering.

The problem of dirty money won't just go away. Metal coin alternatives may be part of the answer, but in the meantime some action is needed, whether antimicrobials are incorporated or new currency processing equipment introduced.

I don't know what the future holds, but right now the “bugs” are winning this war.


Dr. Richard M. Podhajny has been in the packaging and printing industry for more than 30 years. Contact him at 267/695-7717; rpodhajny@colorcon.com.



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