Study finds cocaine present on most bills

A GW chemist recently confirmed the basic premise of a study revealed last week that the presence of cocaine is very common on U.S. currency.

Using a technique developed by a laboratory at Purdue University, GW chemistry professor Akos Vertes tested money for cocaine in a GW lab after local television station WUSA9 challenged the scientist to detect the drug.

“What we confirmed was that if you take a random bill out of your wallet, or anybody’s wallet, and test it for cocaine, we can actually see and detect and identify the cocaine on the bills,” Vertes said.

Cocaine is present on 95 percent of banknotes analyzed in Washington, according to a study presented by University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor Yuegang Zuo at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society last week. That percentage is higher than the national average of cocaine on currency, which is 90 percent, according to the study.

Though the amounts of cocaine found on the bills were small, the findings represent a 20 percent increase from a similar study conducted just two years ago.

“I’m not sure why we’ve seen this apparent increase, but it could be related to the economic downturn, with stressed people turning to cocaine,” Zuo said in a statement issued by the American Chemical Society.

Vertes said the first bill he tested was positive for cocaine. His assistant, Peter Nemes, also tested several bills, all of which tested positive.

In the test, chemicals are placed on the surface of the bill and high voltage is applied. Molecules on the bill are driven by the voltage into a mass spectrometer that analyzes the droplets.

While the amount of cocaine on each bill was not measured, Vertes said that most bills contain trace amounts that result from contamination in circulation and ATM machines.

“My understanding from other studies out there indicate that on average we are talking about a fraction of a microgram, so it’s a very small amount,” he said.

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