Tales of currency laced with traces of narcotics, usually cocaine and often high-value bills, have been an urban legend for years.
But a study by a group of students from UAB have found the legends to be true — sort of.
Instead of $100 or $50 bills, they’re singles. And instead of cocaine, the drug of choice is methamphetamine.
Dr. Elizabeth Gardner, a forensic scientist who is an associate professor of justice sciences at UAB, was in charge of the undergraduate project. Her students gathered groups of 20 one-dollar bills from various businesses around the area, then tested each group for drugs — originally cocaine, but later meth as well.
Of the groups of samples collected, a sample of 20 bills from “a home improvement store in north Jefferson County,” which Gardner declined to name, showed positive results for meth on 17 of them. That number was the largest by far of all the sample sites.
A second sample set turned up meth on just five bills.
“I was kind of excited about it, for research purposes,” Gardner said. “We wanted to test more, and we haven’t gotten that many again, but it is indicative of a trend.”
By contrast, a sample taken from another home improvement store in Bessemer tested positive on 11 out of 20 bills. Another sample from a fast-food restaurant in downtown Birmingham was positive on just two bills, and a sample from the rural community of Grant in Marshall County was positive for meth on seven bills.
It’s not unusual to see a small percentage of bills which have very small trace amounts of drugs, but the number and the concentration is growing over time.
“They’ve been testing bills for drugs for years,” Gardner said. “This is a definite change in the drug contamination of bills when we’re seeing a significant percentage of bills with methamphetamine, and it’s not the ultra-trace levels we were seeing before.”
Meth and cocaine aren’t the only substances that the group tested for. Gardener said bills also tested positive for heroin, ketamine — a veterinary medicine sometimes abused as a narcotic — and methadone, as well as the pain-killer acetaminophen (Tylenol), nicotine and caffeine.
“We see DEET, an [ingredient in] insect repellent, fairly often as well,” Gardner said.
To test the bills, each one is crumpled and placed in a small vial. Diluted hydrochloric acid, very similar to vinegar, is put into each vial to remove the drugs. The acidic solution is poured off and a basic solution replaces it to lower the pH level, then an organic solvent absorbs the drugs for lab analysis.
The UAB study is the latest in a series done by Gardner’s students, dating back to a study begun by a single student in 2008.