Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Human Interest

The State You're In: MRSA bacteria adds to dirty money

The other day, I handed $1.25 over to a Suncoast Parkway toll operator wearing filthy blue surgical gloves.

Was it ink from all the dollar bills she handled? Grime from coins sitting on the floorboard of someone's car?

Turns out, unless you clean toilets for a living, money is one of the nastiest things you'll touch in a given day. Tests have discovered everything from cocaine to Bisphenol A, a chemical used to make plastics and known to cause health problems, on our greenbacks.

Now a small group of St. Petersburg College students and their teacher have added yet another frightening contaminant to the mix: MRSA, known scientifically as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

First discovered in 1961, MRSA is a staph bacteria that causes aggressive infections and laughs at most antibiotics.

Shannon McQuaig, associate professor of natural sciences at St. Petersburg College, obtained a $3,500 grant for the research. Her students have been collecting dollar bills and credit cards for the past few months and testing samples of bacterial DNA.

Germaphobes should stop reading here.

Of the more than 100 dollars collected so far, 60 percent tested positive for MRSA. About 50 percent of credit cards showed traces of MRSA.

Interestingly, the students collected half the bills from hospital settings, such as gift shops, hospital cafeterias and the like. The other half were gathered from convenience stores, pharmacies, department stores and restaurants.

"We thought hospitals would be the worst for MRSA," said McQuaig. "Turns out we weren't correct in our hypothesis."

Just 20 percent of the bills found at Pinellas County hospitals held traces of MRSA. But 80 percent of the bills found in the community tested positive.

Truth is, MRSA is commonly found on humans. But it's mostly those with weakened immune systems who will develop infections. The rest of us don't touch it enough for it to be a problem.

Care should be taken when handling cash and then touching an open wound. But MRSA is not the only money-borne risk factor out there. Remember the bills that made their way recently through the bowels of Arnie, the money-eating beagle in Largo?

Leonora LaPeter Anton, Times staff writer; Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

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