[Dave Birch] A great many years ago when I was involved in the pilot of the Mondex electronic cash scheme in Swindon, I do remember that there were some groups of retailers who rather liked the idea of shifting away from cash to electronic money for reasons that were nothing to do with economy or efficiency. I can remember talking to a hairdresser somewhere in the town centre near where the Mondex “shop” was placed, and she told me that she liked the idea of doing away with cash because cash was filthy and she had to keep washing her hands all day because of touching it. I think somebody in a bakery mentioned the same to a colleague of mine. Lucre really is filthy.


with kind permission of MasterCard

Roughly around the same time I saw a magazine article about US currency that made the point that not only is money dirty it is germ-ridden and I added this to the anti-cash charge sheet. In fact I referred to it a decade later in one of my first ever blog posts, called “End the cash menace now!“. From time to time over the years, I’ve brought this up as one of my general and persistent complaints about cash. Just the other day I read a report from MasterCard that

On average, European banknotes and coins contain 26,000 bacteria while sterling has 18,200 bacteria. New currency contains about 2,400 bacteria.

[From More than half of Brits fear germ risk from filthy money – with good reason | Metro News]

Ha! The Europeans have filthier lucre than our Sterling and scientists have proven it. Apparently banknotes are still contaminated with some potentially nasty bugs. So, how much of string is this for the anti-cash bow? We’ve known for many years that cash is dirty and carries all sorts of contaminants.

As an aside, if there’s one thing more prevalent than poo on our money, it’s Bolivian marching powder.

[From An idea for a dirty story]

I don’t have the article to hand right now, but I do remember reading a few years ago that the prevalence of cocaine on US banknotes is such that detecting the presence of cocaine is no longer probable cause for the search and seizure of the cash. (I’ve no idea what to Google in order to verify this, so would appreciate input from any US law enforcement types who are reading the blog!)

It isn’t just the cash that is filthy. ATMs in the UK are also reservoirs of pestilence. And sadly, so are plastic cards (in fact, in a spirit of scientific enquiry, I should report that one study in London found a higher percentage of contaminated cards!). It seems as if a lot of things, in the UK at least, are absolutely filthy. Now, coincidentally, shortly after reading the MasterCard, it happened that one of my favourite journalists, Wendy Grossman, sent me an old article about the history of cash from Discover magazine in 1998, again making reference to the poisonous characteristics of the means of exchange. (Wendy has form in this area – read on…)

Unfortunately, I don’t think the dirty money meme plays into our electronic money hands as much as we’d like. Remember, it’s mobile phones that are going to get rid of cash, not cards. And here the news is not good. The average mobile phone is even dirtier than the bank notes! Once again, in the UK:

Faecal bacteria are present on 26% of hands in the UK, 14% of banknotes and 10% of credit cards,

[From BBC News – Handwashing: Why are the British so bad at washing their hands?]

Yes, money is filthy, but so are we. The article goes on to mention that one in six mobile phones are dirtier than toilet seats. I’m afraid, much as I hate the horrible stuff, germs aren’t the nail in cash’s coffin that I’d hope, merely a contributory factor in its decline.

My final piece of evidence that we are unlikely to be able to use the filthy, germ ridden, infectious nature of money as a propaganda tool in the war on cash comes from our annual Forum. A couple of years ago one of the speakers at the forum, or one of the panellists (I can’t remember which), made a remark about the propensity of money to pass on communicable diseases. Wendy was there at the time and she immediately countered the speaker by making an unequivocal offer to lick any money that Forum delegates might wish to present. Throwing herself on the barbed wire for science, so to speak, earned her a place in Forum folklore. To the best of my knowledge she remains hale and hearty, but if she does develop any diseases that can be traced back to any notes or coins present that day, I will report it back with some excitement.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers


  1. Thanks for stating clearly your interest in propaganda in the war on cash.
    A war against cash is a war against me, and against privacy, and I posit, against democracy.
    I understand that propaganda as a profoundly undemocratic technique for influencing public opinion, is technically illegal outside of war; since propaganda against cash is nakedly obvious, (and not only in this blog), where can I read the declaration of war?

  2. If the ability to self-optimise tax liability is democracy, Matthew is right. Did we really had more privacy before the cards became commonplace? Does it matter? If we all start paying via fingerprint tomorrow, will our civilisation decline? Mobile phones are tracked 24/7 – do we care?

    As for cash vs non-cash, in my opinion, it’s about trust vs convenience. Once we trust non-cash more, things will fall into place.

  3. You said it, Annette Bromos said it, and, the thing that really provoked me because I was moderating the panel, Geronimo Emili said it.


  4. [Dave Birch] I love your phrase “self-optimise tax liability”, Alexander. I intend to shamelessly plagiarise it.

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