MANILA, August 20, 2003 (STAR) By Sharon Siddique  - The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak has made us all more hygiene-conscious. Public toilets across Asia are being cleaned and stocked up with plenty of soap for hand-scrubbing. We avoid handshakes, hugs and contact with doorknobs, lift buttons and stair rails for fear of contamination and contact with the dreaded virus.

We assume that personal possessions are safe. But can we be sure that they are germ-free? Do you know where the banknotes in your wallet have been in the past 24 hours? Think about it. Concern over communicable diseases is giving a new meaning to the term "dirty money." In response to the SARS outbreak, banks in China have begun disinfecting their currency notes. Paper money is "quarantined" for 24 hours before it is re-circulated.

But where, you might ask, is the evidence? Researchers at the Regional Sophisticated Instrumentation Center (RSIC) at the North Eastern University in Shilong, India, who examined Indian banknotes, found germs which can cause tuberculosis, meningitis, pneumonia, tonsillitis, peptic ulcers, genital tract infections, gastroenteritis, throat infections and lung abscesses. The bugs from banknotes infect the body through scratches on the hands or when the hand touches the mouth or nose.

Particularly dangerous are damaged or soiled notes held together with bits of sticky tape. According to RSIC researcher Dr. Sudip Dey, these are potential killers. "The locals are immune but travelers are not, and touching these notes can be fatal." The British travel industry was sufficiently alarmed to issue warnings to British tourists.

Health Warning

As more studies in various countries conclude that currency notes are germ-infested, can we soon expect a new advisory to be stamped on future currency: WARNING: Handling cash may be harmful to your health.

In Pakistan, a study by the Microbiology Department of Karachi University concluded that contact with contaminated currency notes could cause diarrhea and urinary tract infections, besides skin burn and septicaemic infection. An even more frightening finding was that banknote bugs have the potential to develop resistance to antibiotics, making the treatment of infectious diseases more difficult.

This issue of dirty money recently set off a flurry of articles in the Pakistani press. One letter writer wondered why so many washing powder ads focus their sole attention on washing dirty linen. Why, he asks, does it not occur to advertisers that washing filthy currency notes would make a riveting advertisement?

The general public certainly appears to have grasped the issue of dirty money. And some innovative bankers have been quick to cash in. In Dhaka, one foreign bank wins business by guaranteeing their customers a steady supply of fresh, new takas (Bangladeshi banknotes) delivered daily from the Bangladesh Central Bank.

But First-Worlders should certainly not be complacent. Dirty money is not simply confined to developing nations. Some of the studies on contaminated currency emerging from the United States were real eye-openers.

Take a recent survey conducted for the Department of Endocrinology at the Wright-Patterson Medical Center in Ohio. Researchers collected 68 one-dollar notes from a concession stand at a high school sporting event, and a grocery store check-out counter, and examined them for bacterial contamination. Only four bills (six percent) contained no detectable germs.

Five of the 68 bills (seven percent) had types of bacteria that commonly cause infections in healthy persons, such as staphylococcus aureus and klebstella pneumoniae. A staggering 59 bills (87 percent) were contaminated with types of bacteria that can cause significant infections in patients with depressed immune systems. These included such nasty-sounding organisms as coagulase-negative staphylococcus, alpha hemolytic streptococcus and escherichia vulneris. We are obviously carrying more around in our wallets than we think.

Traces Of Drugs

Other alarming substances are also commonly found on banknotes. If you have US dollars in your wallet, you might be labeled a drug carrier. The exchange of illicit cocaine for money by drug dealers is an everyday occurrence in US cities.

In a study documented by the Office of the Cyuahoga county coroner in Cleveland, Ohio in 2001, $10 bills were randomly collected from each of five American cities. The bank notes were tested for cocaine and heroin. Results showed that 46 bills (92 percent) tested positive for cocaine, while heroin was found on seven bills (14 percent).

The researchers speculated that one reason for this staggeringly high percentage might be that banknotes collectively find their way into electric counting machines in banks and large retail establishments.

All the above banknotes, whether bug- or drug-ridden, still finds its way into the wallets of the world, circulating from markets to shops to department stores to restaurants and onto airplanes to be exchanged for different currencies at other destinations. Businessmen who carry multiple currencies may be unwittingly brewing a potpourri of germs in their pockets.

But all this describes the dirty money which is in active circulation. Have you ever thought about what happens to the cash which is so dirty that it becomes unusable? What happens when the bits of the Indian rupee note, or the Indonesian rupiah can no longer be stuck together?

In the US, there is a whole division of the Department of Treasury which deals with what is termed "mutilated currency." Currency is classified as mutilated only if it is "not clearly more than one-half of the original note and/or in such condition that the value is questionable and special examination is required to determine its value." The departmentís website boasts many beleaguered examples of burned, buried and water-damaged money.

If you are the hapless owner of mutilated cash, there is still hope. You can send it to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, where it will be examined and, if you are lucky, you can get new money back. Of course, it is not easy.

Lorraine Robinson, division manager of the bureauís office of currency standards, admonished in an interview with USA Today that "you canít just say my cat, dog or child ate it and thatís it. Thatís not going to satisfy us. Weíve had people wait until the cat deposited out the other end. Weíll ask that you clean it up, and weíll take it."

Asked about her most challenging cases, Robinson recalled one case involving money which had been found under an outhouse. The money reeked and had to sit in a special solution for months to be decontaminated before she could start work. Truly Robinsonís job is not for the faint-hearted.

All this talk about mutilated money leads one to reflect on the life-cycle of banknotes. We all appreciate receiving crisp, clean bills. But when was the last time that you had a wallet-full of unsoiled, uncrumpled currency? Most of the notes in circulation have seen better days. They are well-traveled veterans. And we have to accept them. Most of us have gingerly fingered change from the fish or meat vendors, but dirty bills are not confined to wet markets. So the odds are that you are carrying more than cash in your wallet. Think about it. * * *

(The author specializes in policy design and strategy for public and private sector corporations, and in risk assessments of countries in Southeast Asia. Based in Singapore, she holds degrees from the Universities of Montana, Singapore and Bielefeld in Germany, and is currently the director of Sreekumar Siddique & Co., a research-based consulting firm which focuses on the economic, political and policy analyses of countries in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean Rim.)

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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