Why fivers are so dirty

Five pound notes are dirtier and are likely to carry more bacteria than other notes. Why?

Have you got a fiver in your wallet or purse? Take a look at it – chances are that it will be markedly less pristine than its higher denomination companions.  

The humble fiver has gone through many incarnations over the years, bearing the portraits of luminaries such as the Duke of Wellington, George Stephenson and Elizabeth Fry (who is on the current note.)

But, many have been in circulation so long, and are in such bad condition, that Ms Fry would no doubt have donned a pair of rubber gloves if she had ever come into contact with one.

Why are they filthy?

It seems there are a number of factors have contributed to their shoddy appearance. This Bank of England table shows that there are fewer fivers in circulation than other denominations.

Stock of Notes in Circulation at end-February (value)

(£ millions)





















But the Bank of England insists that the problem does not lie with their production levels, but with the attitude of the nation’s high street banks. They are reluctant to stock their ATMs with fivers as they are more expensive to process.  According to the British Bankers Association the average withdrawal from a cash point is £100. If this sum was dispensed in fivers, it would quickly deplete stocks, leading to irritatingly empty cash-points on our high streets.

More than 70% of bank notes are obtained by the public via ATMs, where £20 notes dominate, and fivers are rarely dispensed. The Bank of England claims that because of this it is struggling to get £5 notes into circulation, despite having plenty waiting in their vaults to be distributed.  

Why are fivers important?

Despite the increase of ‘paying with plastic’ cash is still popular. Low denomination notes are very important as they can help prevent overspending and assist with budgeting.

This can be extremely beneficial for those on low incomes.

Yet shopkeepers, who need fivers for change, are more likely to keep hold of them than deposit them back at the bank.

This has contributed to the notes that do remain in circulation being ‘overworked’ and getting tatty.

 Damaged notes are only discovered and withdrawn when returned to the banks.   

What is this ‘dirt’?

Even those of us with only a passing interest in hygiene might have hesitated before taking a grubby note from someone’s sweaty palm.

Studies made from all over the world have found that all currency can harbour both harmless and potentially harmful strains of bacteria, including salmonella.

It is generally agreed that these are not present in levels that are likely to cause illness, although concern has been raised about some food establishments where money and food is handled by the same person.

Having said that, simple, regular hand-washing makes the likelihood of illness very rare.

Still, if a note is old and wrinkled, more dirt and bacteria is likely to settle in its folds. So the hardworking fiver represents a greater cause for concern than other notes.

Additionally, in Britain, banknotes are made of a cotton-based material, as opposed to a polymer-based, ‘plastic’ note such as the Euro or Australian Dollar. This substance is more susceptible to bacteria infestation (according to the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease). 

The Bank of England does not have plans to produce a ‘plastic’ note though, saying that they “consider paper notes as good as any other.”  

It’s not just the bacteria and dirt that contaminates banknotes. One of the Bank of England definitions of ‘contamination’ is a banknote that has been ‘dye-stained’ by anti-theft devices widely used in the cash-in-transit industry.

Plus, forensic investigators consistently produce results that confirm the presence of drugs, such as cocaine, on over 99% of bank notes.

Basically, your crumbled, stained banknote is likely to have led a much more interesting life than you!

Recent Progress

This week, Victoria Cleland, Head of the Notes Division at the Bank of England, made a speech on the subject. She announced that the major ATM operators are on board with their proposals to introduce more fivers, and have agreed to reconfigure between 10-15% of their machines so that they can stock and dispense the note.

With more and more coming into circulation (an estimated £4 billion will be distributed in 2011, compared with £2 billion in 2010), retailers will be able to make sure scruffy notes are banked and dealt with before they completely disintegrate!

What to do if you have a damaged note

If you have a damaged note, it does not automatically become worthless. The Bank can reimburse you for its face value, provided there are sufficient fragments remaining (generally there should be evidence of a least half a note.)

They have a dedicated team who deal with all types of ‘mutilated’ notes, so if you are in possession of one contact the Bank’s cash centre on 0113 2441711 or fill in a Bank of England Mutilated Notes Claim Form.

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