New Delhi: Almost all the currency notes and coins in circulation in the country may be contaminated with bacteria, some of which cause infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, going by a study published in the latest issue of peer-reviewed science journal Current Science.
This revelation comes a day after a team of British scientists reported in the journal Lancet of the presence of the New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase protein (NDM-1) that conferred on bacteria enormous resistance to antibiotic treatment. Most bacteria are neutral to the human body.
According to scientists, the large population, high density and weather conditions in India create ideal conditions for bacteria to proliferate.
There are at least one million deaths from infectious diseases in India every year.
While studies have in the past warned of the presence of drug-resistant strains of bacteria even in hospitals and water reservoirs, few have attempted to collect empirical evidence from articles of daily use such as currency.
To be sure, the study, Screening of Currency in Circulation for Bacterial Contamination, published in the 25 March issue of Current Science, is based on a limited sample. Similar studies in Ghana and Bangladesh also used small samples to arrive at a similar conclusion.
The researchers, Ajay Sharma and Dr B. Dhanashree, scanned a limited sample of 25 coins and rupee notes each, solicited the currency from an assortment of school children, beggars and street food vendors, and limited the exercise to Mangalore.
“The presence of a heavy contagion of microflora (bacterial organisms) with significant antibiotic resistance is a cause of concern and warrant the use of standard precautions,” they wrote in their paper.
The researchers said 98% of the currency was contaminated —96% of the coins and 100% of the currency notes were found to be contaminated with different bacterial species, of which Staphylococcus aureus, Klebsiella spp. and Escherichia coli were considered pathogens, micro-organisms that cause diseases.
Dhanashree, a doctor at the Kasturba Medical College in Mangalore and co-author of the study, said there wasn’t cause for alarm and that most of the bacterial species that were identified were of concern only to those with weaker immune systems. She further added that though the study was funded by the Indian Council of Medical Research, it was a one-off exercise and there were no plans for a follow-up.
Rigorous and comprehensive studies of bacterial contamination in currency notes that spanned 10 countries found that a rise in bacterial incidence was closely correlated with the material of the notes and economic prosperity. The study, which covered Australia, Burkina Faso, China, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Mexico, the UK and the US, was published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease and titled Dirty Money: An Investigation into the Hygiene Status of Some of the World’s Currencies as Obtained from Food Outlets.
According to the Reserve Bank of India’s latest annual report, bank notes in circulation rose from around 44 billion in 2008 to 56 billion by 2010 and coins in comparison jumped from 95 to 105 billion in the corresponding period.
Sunil Lal, researcher at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, Delhi, said that the results weren’t surprising and only pointed towards a need for greater sanitation. “There are a great variety of bacteria, but those on notes and coins could be carriers of disease. We just need to be hygienic,” he said.
Given that the country’s inadequate sanitation infrastructure cannot be overhauled at short notice, public awareness could push up demand for hand sanitizers. According to Anindo Samajpati, assistant vice-president (marketing) at Godrej Personal Care division, the market size for hand sanitizers is around Rs 30 crore and growing at an average of around 40% every year.