Mobile Payments more Hygienic than Cash?

cash drawer

Bacteria are everywhere. They live in soil, they live on our skin and they live in our guts. They even live in the Mariana Trench and the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. And yes, they live on dollar bills. Is this something that should concern us? MasterCard would have us believe so. In fact, they’ve shown that we—or at least our European counterparts—already do believe so.

MasterCard recently funded a study about Europeans’ perceptions regarding the cleanliness of cash. One thousand participants across fifteen countries were asked to select what they believed to be the least hygienic item in a list that included cash, escalator handrails, payment terminal buttons and library books. In nearly every country, at least half of the participants chose cash as the dirtiest item. Finland was the least wary of cash, with 48% choosing the euro as the dirtiest item. Italians were the most wary, with 66% selecting the euro as their dirtiest item. Overall, 57% of participants believed cash to be the least hygienic item of the options listed.

Obviously, MasterCard is not an unbiased party. They funded this study for a reason—they want to promote the use of MasterCard products. In a cashless society, MasterCard would number among the winners. Thus while it’s always important to consider context, it’s especially important with regard to this study.

For example, MasterCard’s press release about the study avoids any mention of whether or not cash actually is the dirtiest item with which people come into regular contact. It instead presents some scary-sounding numbers and quotes a professor as saying those numbers are “sufficient for passing on infection.” The same professor admits “there is merit in a wider study tracking the spread of resistant strains [of harmful bacteria] through movement of bank notes globally.” But that study was not this study. This study consisted primarily of the perception questionnaire discussed above. Twenty-five bank notes across six countries were also tested to determine the approximate number of bacteria on each—and to give us our scary numbers. The amount of bacteria found varied hugely, ranging from an average of 11,066 per euro to over 4 million on either the krone or the ruble—or perhaps that’s an average of the two; the chart MasterCard provides is unclear to me on this point—for an overall average of 26,000 bacteria per note. The single cleanest note tested harbored 2,400 bacteria.

Clearly, cash is disgusting and we should all immediately switch to the exclusive use credit cards and mobile payments. Right?

Not so fast. Sure, those sound like big numbers, but let’s consider their context. In a typical gram of soil, you’ll find about 50 million bacterial cells. According to one 2007 study, a kitchen sponge can contain about 10 million bacteria per square inch, and a dish cloth about a million. And guess where a 2012 Wall Street Journal piece reported finding between 2,700 and 4,200 units of a disease-causing bacterium called coliform? Mobile phones. 2,700-4,200 are low numbers compared to what we’re seeing in the MasterCard study, but that was just one specific kind of bacteria—as far as I can determine, the MasterCard study includes all bacteria, of which there are so many different types that most haven’t even been scientifically characterized. With a little context, that 26,000 bacteria per bank note statistic is sounding a little less scary, isn’t it?

The press release regarding MasterCard’s study implies that handling cash can make a person sick, but it doesn’t actually report finding any harmful bacteria on the cash they tested. The professor MasterCard cites simply says that harmful bacteria have been found on bank notes in previous studies. While this is true, it is also true that the vast majority of bacteria are perfectly harmless to humans. A certain amount of exposure to bacteria can even be beneficial to a person’s health. I’m not suggesting that if you find a dollar bill on the bathroom floor you should pick it up and lick it, but bacteria are precisely what you’re eating when you take a bite of probiotic yoghurt. Also, studies have shown that exposure to bacteria is essential to a child’s developing a healthy immune system, and that creating an over-sterile environment can be detrimental to the health of both children and adults.

There are many upsides to mobile payments and going cashless. Business owners should absolutely be instituting mobile POS solutions in their businesses—the reasons for this are manifold and are explored regularly on this site: convenience, connectivity, security, customer preference… the list goes on. Has this study from MasterCard done anything to convince me that hygiene belongs on that list? My answer is a resounding “No.”


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