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Why Do People Fight About Coffee Cup Lid Contamination?

Can coffee cup lid contamination spread disease? There's been an uptick in norovirus on cruise ships this year. Beware the STOMACH VIRUS!

What is it about coffee cup lids that drives people to distraction? Some people could not care less about coffee cup lid contamination. Others get very excited. This is not the sort of thing public health officials are likely to study. Do not expect any scientific answers to solve this food fight. What we can tell you is that norovirus is spreading like wildfire on cruise ships. This so-called “stomach flu” is something you want to avoid. A lot of those vacationers are going to come home with the virus and it will likely spread around the country.

Do Not Worry About Coffee Cup Lid Contamination!

This reader says, “Don’t worry, be happy!”

Q. You have written about people arguing over the contamination of coffee cup lids when the barista touches them. As I see it, germs are everywhere, and your best defense is a healthy immune system.

That would mean a healthier lifestyle for many people. Why not promote that instead of germaphobia?

A. When a server handles money and then touches a coffee cup lid, there’s an opportunity for pathogen transmission. Money carries hundreds, if not thousands, of different types of bacteria and viruses.

Dirty Money?

Should you doubt that money carries germs, there are some scientific studies. For example, investigators examined 284 money samples collected from church offerings (Iranian Journal of Public Health, May, 2019).  They cultured a variety of nasty bacteria and fungi.

Their conclusions:

“Unlike previous studies conducted where recent contamination could occur, the current study shows that microorganisms can survive on money; samples were collected from a church, where little or no exchange takes place. Moreover, using SEM [Scanning Electron Microscopy] demonstrates that aged and creased notes favor attachment of bacteria to money and could be of public health concern by transmitting disease within a given population.”

Other researchers note (Microorganisms, Nov. 23, 2016)

“In this study we report the underlying reasons to why bacteria are present on banknotes and coins. Despite the use of credit cards, mobile phone apps, near-field-communication systems, and cryptocurrencies such as bitcoins which are replacing the use of hard currencies, cash exchanges still make up a significant means of exchange for a wide range of purchases. The literature is awash with data that highlights that both coins and banknotes are frequently identified as fomites [carriers] for a wide range of microorganisms.

And finally, here is a connecting of the dots between money and hands (Future Microbiology, 2014):

“Paper currency and coins may be a public health risk when associated with the simultaneous handling of food and could lead to the spread of nosocomial [hospital transmitted] infections. Banknotes recovered from hospitals may be highly contaminated by Staphylococcus aureus. Salmonella species, Escherichia coli and S. aureus are commonly isolated from banknotes from food outlets. Laboratory simulations revealed that methicillin-resistant S. aureus can easily survive on coins, whereas E. coli, Salmonella species and viruses, including human influenza virus, Norovirus, Rhinovirus, hepatitis A virus, and Rotavirus, can be transmitted through hand contact.”

Nasty Norovirus:

Norovirus is especially easy to transmit. It causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and extreme misery. Hundreds of schools were closed to control the spread of this illness.

According to the CDC, since last August there have been nearly 1000 outbreaks of norovirus. The Wall Street Journal (June 27, 2023) reports that there have been more norovirus “incidents” on cruise ships this year than in a decade:

“The most recent outbreak occurred on a North Atlantic Viking Cruises sailing that docked in New Jersey on June 20. More than 100 passengers fell ill, according to the CDC, accounting for 13% of all vacationers on the ship. Crew members also contracted the gastrointestinal illness.”

The Journal reports that of the 13 outbreaks on cruise ships in 2023, almost 1,700 passengers have been affected. If you want to know why we care so much about this nasty norovirus, check out our rant about it at this link.

Why We Care About Coffee Cup Lid Contamination:

Another reader commented on the coffee cup lid contamination:

“I always remove the lid of my takeout coffee before drinking it because I don’t like the taste or smell of plastic. Avoiding germs is another good reason.

I often see baristas touching any number of things (money, store displays, customer’s phones, gift cards, the public counter area) and then making my drink. This would never be acceptable in a lab or even a restaurant.”

Can People Get Sick After Coffee Cup Lid Contamination?

As far as we can tell, no one has done a study of coffee cup lid contamination and the actual transmission of disease. If someone comes down with terrible vomiting and diarrhea a day or two after drinking a cup of coffee at a coffee shop, it would be hard to prove what causes the illness. No one will likely conduct an experiment to see if they can transmit Norovirus to the public.

More comments about the coffee cup lid contamination controversy:

R. M. says do not worry!

“I have no concern about this whatsoever. Stop being so paranoid.”

JAS has a different perspective:

“I’m tired of the ignorant slobs who spread disease and germs in this world and think nothing of it! Their arrogance allows them to think they’re invincible. They don’t care about those people who have compromised immune systems and not everyone gets paid sick days when they get the flu.

“And for all of you who think you’re invincible and have a super immune systems, please, by all means, donate your body to testing out all those new drugs and vaccines if you’re so immune to disease and germs. And why ‘The Invincibles’ can’t figure out where that fast food worker’s hands have been, is beyond me. How about scratching their nose, itching their watery eyes, scratching their crotch, wiping their lips and scraping their scalp…?

“All of you know this because EVERYONE does each of these things from time to time. And No! I don’t want your fingers (and bodily fluids) on my lid… it’s called ‘good hygiene and safe food handling procedures!’ Both of which keep people alive and healthy…”

Another reader offers this interesting observation about coffee cup lid contamination:

“I grew up playing in a drainage ditch and dirt. I never remember being ill until I entered the sterile world of motherhood.

“I do have asthma and try to avoid getting sick. I ask for a straw in restaurants. The main thing that is creepy to me is the greasy salt and pepper shakers. At least the servers wash their hands on the job.
That is more than can be said about a lot of customers handling the shakers.

“My most shocking observation was a guy making a sub sandwich for the people in front of me. He coughed deeply in his gloved hand and continued to make the sandwich. I commented and he looked at me like I had two heads. I walked out and never went back.”

Learn more about the “Intestinal Apocalypse” at this link.

What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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