Poisonous Pennies

As if there weren’t enough reasons to abandon the penny in the USA, I just learned of a new reason to ban the penny from my home — they are poisonous. The problem is that when pennies are swallowed (by an infant, for instance), the zinc innards can be dissolved by the stomach acid. This can lead to two medical issues: the dissolved zinc can create an ulcer, and the copper shell can cut through internal organs. This issue was brought to my attention  by the first-hand story of a health-care provider whose patient died from internal lacerations caused by a penny. I cannot find anything online about incidents like this, so it is apparently extremely rare. The problem of zinc poisoning is better documented. There’s a chance that my source was confused about the mechanism by which the  penny killed the child, but given his proximity to the case and the details he provided, I’m pretty confident that he knew what he was talking about.

The risks may be pretty low, but given that pennies are nothing more than clutter in my house anyway*, I’ve decided to ban them from my house. I’ve been leaving them behind in stores, but I should just start telling cashiers to keep them (consider it a tip, if you’d like). One of the local stores has a policy of rounding to the nearest nickel, which I wish more stores would adopt. Frankly, I’d be happy if they rounded to the nearest dime or quarter.

Having completed my rant, let’s see a  demonstration of the chemical reaction — you can dissolve the zinc core of a penny at home if you’d like:

I did this using salt and vinegar, as suggested here.
Another neat trick to plate the penny with zinc, and then turn that plating into brass:

p.s. My web-search for pro/con penny arguments came across an essay at Forbes called Don’t You Dare Eliminate the Penny, as one of the first hits. The argument is so ridiculous that it actually strengthened my confidence that the penny should be eliminated, on the grounds that penny advocates have absolutely no basis for their position. However, I was able to find some better arguments by going to Wikipedia, though even some of these sound like complete BS. As is usual with debates, Wikipedia has a decent distillation of the major arguments.

*pennies are worth 5 seconds of minimum-wage work. It’s hardly worth taking the time to pick one up from the floor if you have a full time job.

**p.p.s. This post gave me a few good ideas for educational science projects…once my kids are old enough to not put the pennies in their mouths. So maybe pennies have value after all!

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