Laundered money

A bright orange bottle of detergent has become the underworld equivalent of prison cigarettes.

The Daily has a story which would be unbelievable, were it not accompanied by pictures backing it up. Tide-brand laundry detergent has become a makeshift currency in the criminal underworld.

M.L. Nestel reports:

One Tide taker in West St. Paul, Minn., made off with $25,000 in the product over 15 months before he was busted last year...

Tide has become a form of currency on the streets. The retail price is steadily high — roughly $10 to $20 a bottle — and it’s a staple in households across socioeconomic classes.

Tide can go for $5 to $10 a bottle on the black market, authorities say. Enterprising laundry soap peddlers even resell bottles to stores.

"There’s no serial numbers and it’s impossible to track,” said Detective Larry Patterson of the Somerset, Ky., Police Department, where authorities have seen a huge spike in Tide theft. “It’s the item to steal"...

"We sent in an informant to buy drugs. The dealer said, 'I don’t have drugs, but I could sell you 15 bottles of Tide,' " [Detective Harrison] Sprague told The Daily. "Upstairs in the drug dealer’s bedroom was about 14 bottles of Tide laundry soap. We think [users] are trading it for drugs."

Police in Gresham, Ore., said most Tide theft is perpetrated by "users feeding their habit."

"They’ll do it right in front of a cop car — buying heroin or methamphetamine with Tide," said Detective Rick Blake of the Gresham Police Department. "We would see people walking down the road with six, seven bottles of Tide. They were so blatant about it."

Tide does appear to meet all the requirements for a heavily traded commodity. Crucially, one bottle of it is identical to any other, a quality economists call "fungibility", putting it in the same class as oil, precious metals, or currency itself. If someone lends me a bottle of Tide, I don't have to return the same one to them when my debt is called in – in fact, because there are no serial numbers, it would be impossible for them to tell even if I did.

Based on what Detectives Patterson and Sprague say, it sounds like Tide is also a highly liquid commodity, frequently traded, which will allow a natural, and relatively stable, value to emerge for it. If it is going to be used as a currency replacement, however, the price spread will need to narrow from the $5 it stands at now – although the fact that dealers are storing large quantities suggests that a healthy arbitrage market is growing up around the detergent, which should prevent too much price volatility and guard against supply shocks.

There will be some interesting effects of the unique situtation, however. If thieves are able to resell the detergent to stores, that suggests that a price floor has been put on the market (assuming these stores are buying believing they are part of legitimate trade, and not a black market). There is already a price ceiling as well, since if the black market price of Tide gets too high, it can just be bought legally at the recommended retail price.

There are downsides to using bottles of soap as an underworld currency, though. The price of an average dose of crystal meth is $20 in much of the US, about two to four bottles of Tide – or 14 kilos of the stuff. A credit card might be easier to track, but it's also considerably lighter.

Bottles of Tide on a store shelf, with a "street value" of $20-40. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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