Slowly, slowly, cash is inching ever closer to obsolete. One 2014 report found that roughly 80 percent of Americans have less that $50 in cash in their wallets at any given time, and around 9 percent carry none at all. And that trend has likely continued since the report was published — last year, a separate Gallup poll found that Americans in every age group use cash less frequently than they did five years ago, concluding: “The next generation of consumers might conduct even fewer cash transactions than the youngest Americans today.”
Which, at least from a health standpoint, is a good thing. Say what you want about how it’ll be harder to make change, or the psychological pitfalls of using a credit card, or leaving yourself more vulnerable to fraud or digital theft. Counterpoint: Cash is gross. As Scientific American noted yesterday, tangible money is a veritable petri dish, teeming with things you really, really don’t want on your hands. Over the years, various studies have found such treats as E. coli, MRSA superbugs, flu virus, various types of fungi, diphtheria, anthrax, cocaine, and heroin. (As the The Wall Street Journal reported, a forthcoming study also found traces of DNA from several different animals, including dogs, horses, and even a white rhino.) By one estimate, as many as 94 percent of $1 bills is host to some kind of bacteria. Scientific American explained:
There is no definitive research that connects enough dots to prove dirty money actually makes people sick, but we do have strong circumstantial evidence: influenza, norovirus, rhinovirus and others have all been transmitted via hand-to-hand or surface-to-hand contact in studies, suggesting pathogens could readily travel a hand-money-hand route. In one study 10 subjects handled a coffee cup contaminated with rhinovirus — and half subsequently developed an infection.
The stuff that comes out of an ATM, in other words, is no better than its surface. And making matters worse is the fact that we don’t typically think of cash as something that transfers germs. If you shake hands with a stranger, or buckle a taxi seatbelt, you’ll probably want to soap up before putting your hands anywhere near your mouth; the same isn’t necessarily true of taking a bill out of your wallet. “It is more probable to handle money and then food than to touch a subway pole or a commonly used doorknob and then food,” biologist Manolis Angelakis, who studies infectious diseases, told Scientific American.
If that doesn’t make you feel a little squeamish, consider that the contents of your wallet have probably been touched by hundreds of hands, if not thousands — and odds are good that at least one of those hands contained something nasty. The typical bill stays in circulation for somewhere between four and 15 years, while a coin has a lifespan of around a quarter century. That’s a lot of time for gross stuff to accumulate. The moral of the story, as usual, is this: Basically everything you touch is disgusting, so wash your hands, please.