Is that money in your wallet really dirty? - - The News for South Mississippi

Is that money in your wallet really dirty?

By Trang Pham-Bui – bio | email

HARRISON COUNTY, MS (WLOX) – Money, and lots of it, can lead to wealth.  But, can it also harm your health? 

With so much concern recently over the spread of the Swine Flu and other infections, we wondered:  Since money changes hands frequently and money even travels around the world, can it be a haven for dirt, germs, or other unmentionables?

"I've seen a lot of it and I've worked all over with money," said Jeannette Romero.

Romero is surrounded by coins and cash every day. She's the Senior Vice-President of Operations at the Peoples Bank in downtown Biloxi.  Sometimes, the bills come in looking tattered, torn, even tainted.

"After Katrina, there were a lot of customers bringing in money that was wet, contaminated.  Of course, it's been in the muddy water and so forth.  We did not accept currency like that. They had to be dried and strapped before they bring them in," said Romero.

"You see how it feels rough, worn?" she asked as she held up some weathered looking bills.

"If it was really, really bad, we would put it in what we call mutilated money, and we would send that back to the Federal Reserve," said Romero.

Romero doesn't believe any of her tellers have ever gotten sick from handling money.  But some of them can't help but wonder where the bills have been.

"I've seen them get it out of their shoes. I've seen them take it out of their bra," said Bank Teller Supervisor Sandy Mitchell. 

When asked if she has seen people put money in their mouths, she responded "Oh yeah, yeah."

"Smells like shrimp," said a teller as she held up bundle of cash. "It's very common around here."

"If it gets really bad, we get gloves," said Mitchell.

Gloves are part of the uniform when Jackson County Sheriff Mike Byrd and his narcotics agents come across money at crime scenes.

"This was seized from a drug dealer here," Byrd said as he held up a bag of cash.

"We found it laced in drugs. We found it laced in chemicals to keep the dogs from alerting on it, things like that.  So you don't really know what you're putting your hands in when you're fooling with this money, dirty money," said Byrd.

And the sheriff said contamination can happen when drugs are transported.  The very compartments that hold drugs are often used to hide money.

"I know we've had Methamphetamines on money.  We've had cocaine on money and marijuana," he said.

And he said drug dealers can leave residue on big bills by rolling them up to snort cocaine.  

Another place where money changes hands frequently is a convenience store.  We visited the Kwik Mart in Ocean Springs, where Robin Fitzgerald was on duty at the cash register.

When asked if she ever wonders about the money she touches, Fitzgerald said "Yeah, a lot, because it comes from strange places. In the summer time, it smells like sweat.  Sometimes it's wet and we have to lay it out to dry, because it's all nasty.  Yeah, it's kind of gross."

To satisfy her curiosity and ours, we asked Fitzgerald to randomly select a bill from the cash register.  We placed the dollar in an envelope so it can be tested. We also borrowed some money from the Peoples Bank and got a culture from a dollar bill that was seized from a suspected drug dealer. 

We took our sample bills to the laboratory at Grace Health Care in Gulfport.  Phlebotomist Sandra Todd started by swabbing each bill.

"It will show the bacteria, e coli or anything like that," she said.

A separate test on a $100 bill will track any traces of drugs.

"It's going to show up cocaine, marijuana, opiates, PCP," said Todd.

The cultures were then sealed and sent to another lab.

"I guess we'll find out if the saying is correct, money is the dirtiest thing. We should have the results within 48 to 72 hours," she said.

So, when you share the wealth, do you also share germs and other junk? We were certainly surprised by the results of our tests and so were the ladies at the bank.  We'll share those results when our special report continues Tuesday on WLOX News at 10 PM.   

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