Casino Chips Pose Potential Health Risk as Coronavirus Spreads

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Gaming properties regularly disinfecting chips is theoretically a smart move, especially given the current threat of COVID 19 and that chips are found close to everywhere on gaming floors.

But the sheer number of players and dealers who may touch chips daily may make typical cleaning schedules insufficient to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

Casino chips could carry the coronavirus, and typical cleaning schedules by gaming properties could be insufficient. (Image: Las Vegas Review-Journal)

The risk is illustrated by Amandine Gamble, a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA, one of several scientists who took part in a new, groundbreaking study, which revealed coronavirus can survive on some surfaces for up to two to three days.

I think, generally speaking, it is indeed smart to disinfect casino chips frequently,” Gamble told Casino.org. “Based on our results, infectious viruses may survive on inert surfaces for up to several days.”

But disinfecting chips or even using disposable chips can only go so far, since so many people touch them daily or even hourly.

“The efficiency of these approaches would depend on the frequency at which chips are disinfected or renewed,” Gamble explained. “I am not very familiar with casinos, but I assume that a given chip is likely to encounter several people in a few hours.

“This short-time transfer of chips might already give opportunity to virus transmission, making measures such as chip disinfection or renewal once a day inefficient,” Gamble warned.

The researchers showed that coronavirus can survive up to 72 hours on stainless steel or plastic. It can survive on cardboard up to 24 hours.

Currently, she said the researchers cannot predict the length of time the virus can survive on materials that were not used in the test. For instance, they did not examine the virus’s life span on casino chips, which are often made out of clay composite.

Also, the survival of the virus depends on other factors, such as the temperature and humidity of the room where the virus is found or the amount of virus that is on a surface, Gamble said.

“The more viruses were deposited on the chips, the longer viable viruses will be detected,” Gamble said. “It is … really difficult to predict for how long chips might be contaminated after contact with an infectious person.”

Chip Cleaning Services Busy

There are multiple companies which clean chips for casinos. One of these service providers, Elite Casino Gaming, which cleans chips for Las Vegas and California gaming properties, has “definitely” been busier since the coronavirus outbreak, owner Clay Dubois told Casino.org.

Chips get cleaned by Elite through an ultrasonic process. It works on typical materials used to make chips, such as clay, ceramic, or plastic, Dubois explained.

“Typically, clay chips are used at the larger, more casino resort properties,” Dubois said.

“Chips typically are not discarded, no matter what denomination,” Dubois added. “Only when a chip is damaged, will a casino remove it from the gaming floor.”

Also, Luke Orlando, a product specialist and developer of the chip cleaning machine at TDN Money Systems, agreed that his company has also been busier since the viral outbreak.

“We use a specially designed machine, similar to a dishwasher, and specially designed racks that clean 1,120 chips in 2.5 minutes,” Orlando told Casino.org.

He said higher denomination chips and those which include an electronic chip for tracking can also be cleaned.

“We clean 43mm chips or the higher denominations as well with our 43mm rack,” Orlando said. “Any chip that has RFID [technology] are usually not discarded, and we can clean them without harming that chip.”

But a word of caution for those players concerned about germs. Casino chips typically are not cleaned that often and sometimes not at all.

Casinos “usually clean their chips two-four times a year,” Orlando revealed, based on his industry experience. “There have been a decent amount of casinos that just throw away dirty chips and buy new once they are too dirty. I have been told that several times.”

In fact, Scott Morrow, a lecturer at UNLV who worked in the gaming sector for decades, including at Station Casinos, recently told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that casinos do not clean chips “often enough…. I’ve worked in operations where the chips were never cleaned in 20, 30 years.”

Fifteen years ago, Bluff magazine, a poker publication, engaged UNLV microbiologist Brian Hedlund and UNLV students to test poker chips from five casinos on the Strip.

It was revealed there were between a few hundred and 5,000 bacteria per chip. The most common bacterium found was staphylococcus.

One of the five casinos had particularly clean chips: the Wynn. It had very low levels of bacteria on its chips, the study showed.

Dirty Money?

Beyond chips, another material that could be a concern for those worried about germs in casinos is cash. US currency is made out of cotton fiber paper.

Bankrate reported that in China — which is where coronavirus first broke out — the central bank is working on disinfecting currency and doing away with money that could carry the virus. But the US Federal Reserve has yet to take a similar path.

“The Federal Reserve is in close contact with the … CDC [Centers for Disease Control] to ensure we are aware of the latest thinking on how COVID-19 spreads,” a spokesperson from the Fed told Bankrate. “Currently, the CDC has determined that COVID-19 spreads mainly through person-to-person contact.”

Amandine Gamble further repeated recommendations from the CDC to reduce the risk of contracting coronavirus. These include “social distancing,” such as avoiding large gatherings, especially if someone is sick or had contact with an infected person. Also, she recommends thorough hand washing or the use of hand sanitizer.

US casinos are increasing their cleaning efforts since the coronavirus outbreak, or taking other precautions, such as cleaning or shredding cards. Some are temporarily closing, as casino workers are testing positive for the virus.

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