consumers beware!
The currency notes can be contaminated
Pushpa Girimaji

The Reserve Bank of India may have put stop to people scrawling and scribbling on currency, but there is very little it can do to prevent it from being a storehouse of microbes unless of course, it coats the currency with anti-microbial agents or directs banks to launder dirty money, literally! In Japan, some Automated Teller Machines clean, sanitise and even iron the money, before releasing it!

Since I do not foresee either of the possibilities in India in the near future, I would like to focus on the issue of food safety vis--vis dirty bank notes because the food industry seems to be totally oblivious of the potential danger of food contamination occurring through currency. But what is even more alarming is the fact that the statutory food authority, the Food Standards and Safety Authority of India (FSSAI) has not taken cognisance of a food safety issue such as this that has such wide ramifications on the health of the nation. This is despite a number of scientific studies, pinpointing to the presence of disease causing, drug-resistant bacteria on rupee notes.

A study conducted by the department of microbiology, Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, Karnataka, and published in Current Science, a fortnightly journal of research, in 2011 (Akshay Sharma and B. Dhanashree), had found that 96 per cent of the coins and 100 per cent of the notes examined were contaminated with different bacterial species, including disease-causing pathogens such as S.Aureus, E.Coli and Klebsiella Spp. Worse, many of them were resistant to commonly used antibiotics.

Commenting on the "presence of heavy contagion of microflora with significant antibiotic resistance" on the bank notes, the study warned of the potential risk of transmission of drug-resistant micro-organisms through them and said consumers would be placed at risk if adequate hand sanitation is not practiced by the food industry. Twentyfive bank notes and coins were examined for the study.

Another work published around the same time in the Universal Journal of Environmental Research and Technology (December 2011, vol 1, Issue 4) also found contamination of currency notes collected from different sources in Ajmer, Rajasthan, with E-coli (S.K.Barolia, S.Verma and B.K.Verma). Pointing out that currency notes could be a source of infection and dangerous to health, the study underscored the need for "food sellers to avoid cross-contamination between currency notes and food by avoiding handling currency notes as they sell."

An earlier scrutiny of 100 currency notes (Basavarajappa KG, Rao PN, Suresh K, Indian Journal of Pathology and Microbiology, April 2005)), done some nine years ago, had revealed an even more scarier picture, besides fungal contamination, the notes carried disease-causing pathogens like k.pneumoniae, E.coli, S.aureus, S.Typhi,.

Now, a new research published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology Research (2014) titled Bacterial Analysis of Currency in circulation in a rural teaching hospital in India (G.Pavani and Y.Srividya) has re-confirmed what the earlier studies have said. Of the 100 bank notes collected from the hospital area, 76 per cent was contaminated with multi-drug resistant, disease-causing bacteria.

Its conclusion that "currency plays an important role in the transmission of drug-resistant bacteria in the community" is highly disturbing and calls for immediate action on part of the health ministry as well as the food regulator. I must also mention here that a scientific scrutiny of 150 euro currency, undertaken by Emma Gabriel at the Cork Institute of Technology in Ireland ( Irish Examiner, December 18, 2013) had shown that the bacteria could persist on the surface of the notes for up to 19 days.

Yet, this aspect of food safety does not figure in the FSSAI regulations meant for the food industry and this is a major lacuna. In fact, the food regulator should incorporate in the Food Safety and Standards (Licensing and Registration of Food Businesses) Regulations, 2011, an added condition that those handling food should not touch currency and whenever they do, they must wash hands with anti-bacterial soap and water. And that the function of collecting money and handing out food should be entrusted to different persons in all food establishments selling or catering food. The regulator should also create public awareness on the issue.

So the next time you buy food outside or even eat at home, make sure that the food is not sullied with dirty lucre!