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No Wonder They Call It Filthy Lucre

It's dirty money, all right. Those crumpled bills in your pocket, wadded in your purse, or crammed in your wallet may be hazardous to your health. Many are contaminated with infectious organisms.

Microbiologist Peter Ender and his associates at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, traded freshly minted dollar bills for old ones in the hands of patrons at a food-concession stand and at the local gorocery-store checkout lane. Then they brought the bills back to the lab and had them tested for hazardous bacteria.

What they found is a strong argument for using credit cards. Of the 68 bills tested, most were contaminated with various types of infectious bacteria.

AN AILING CURRENCY? Nearly 60% of the bills tested positive for Streptococcus, Enterobacter, Pseudomonas, and other types of microbes that pose a risk of infection in hospitalized or patients with compromised immune systems. Five bills were contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus and Klebsiella pneumoniae, which can cause staph infections in otherwise healthy people. Only four bills earned a clean bill of health.

So now, to the list that includes Lyme disease-bearing deer ticks, West Nile-infected mosquitoes, and rabid racoons, you can add the grungy greenback. "One-dollar bills are widely used and each is exchanged many times," Ender said a recent meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in Orlando. Fla. "There is potential to spread these organisms from person to person."

Ender cautions, however, that there is no need to panic, at least not yet. "It is important to note that this study did not prove that bacteria can be spread from person to person during the exchange of money," Ender notes. "A more complex study would be required." But, he adds, there is no longer any reason to doubt "that money can be a vehicle for rapid spread of bacteria." There may be something to be said for laundering money after all. By Alan Hall in New York

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