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Swine Flu and Coins, Currency Don't Mix
By Richard Giedroyc

Wash your hands regularly while using tissues when you sneeze. This should help control the spread of H1N1 or swine flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

According to the May 3 SmartMoney blog, there is another way to control the spread of swine flu - stop spending money.

What does SmartMoney mean by that? "Even if it's not so good for the economy - the fact is paper currency - the dollars, fives, tens and twenties most people routinely touch every day - can spread a virus from one person to another. So if you have contact with money that an infected individual has also handled, there's a possibility of catching the flu."

Fortunately, Smart Money goes on to add, "Scientists interviewed by SmartMoney estimate the lifetime of a plain flu virus deposited on money at an hour or so."

I'm certain readers are expecting to read my puns about laundering money, along with some sly comment on how coins should be cleaned after all. Hold on! Did you know that at one time, Hitachi-Omron Terminal Solutions produced and sold Automatic Teller Machines in Japan that cleaned the bank notes as the notes were vended? Well they did, but to quote Edgar Allen Poe, "Nevermore."

We've come a long way since coin dealer Samuel H. Chapman wrote the following open letter to President Theodore Roosevelt that appeared in the February 1909 issue of The Numismatist: "It was the hope of everyone that when our new coinage appeared we would have one of great beauty and artistic merit. But the new $5 and $2.50 gold pieces just issued totally lack these qualities, and not only those of beauty, but actually miss the practicability to which every effect of beauty in relief has been sacrificed - The head of the Indian is without artistic merit, and portrays an Indian who is emaciated, totally unlike the big, strong Indian chiefs as seen in real life - The sunken design, especially the sunken portion of the neck of the Indian, will be a great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease, and the coin will be the most unhygienic ever issue - These coins will be a disgrace to our country as a monument of our present ideas of art as applied to coinage."

Ironically, it was Dr. William Sturgis Bigelow, a Boston physician and friend of President Roosevelt, who came up with the concept of an incused design for the quarter eagle and half eagle coins.

Chapman's comment about the coins being a "great receptacle for dirt and conveyor of disease" have since been scoffed at, but with the H1N1 flu rearing its swine-like head, was Chapman wrong?

Swiss bank notes were recently tested at the Central Laboratory of Virology at the University Hospitals of Geneva. A disgusting mix of flu virus and nasal secretions was placed on the notes to see if the mess would continue to be a health threat. A flu strain called H3N2 were still detectable on the notes for up to 17 days after application, while the dreaded H1N1 virus was only detectable for up to 10 days. The possibility of spreading disease is possible under laboratory conditions, but this, of course, assumes someone outside the laboratory would want to handle a bank note that has been slimed. Just looking at this mess on the notes is enough to make a person sick.

This isn't the first study of this nature done, however. The May 2008 issue of Applied and Environmental Microbiology includes an article titled "Survival of Influenza Virus on Bank Notes." In an interview with SmartMoney, Langone Medical Center (New York University) Director of Clinical Microbiology and Immunology Dr. Philip Tierno said the risk of transmitting diseases by handling cash are low.

Tierno who is the author of The Secret Life of Germs, added that there is a fungicidal agent that inhibits the growth of bacteria and fungi mixed with the ink used on US dollar bills. This agent will help kill flu viruses until when the note is exposed to perspiration and water, weakening the ink as each note circulates. I guess the lesson to be learned here is to only use Crisp Uncirculated bank notes while avoiding all coins with incused designs when handling cash.

Back in 1909, Roosevelt did not respond to Chapman's open letter, and it's a bit unsettling to find that things haven't changed much in our government bureaucracy since that time.

SmartMoney reported that the CDC wouldn't discuss money as a vehicle through which the flu could be transmitted, and the New York State Health Department declined to comment, while the Bureau of Engraving and Printing said just what you might expect them to say - "what happens to US dollars once they're in circulation is beyond the bureau's control."


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