Our Stomach: Both Ironmonger’s Shop and Piggybank

Written by Björn Schöpe
Translated by Leonie Schulze

March 14, 2019 – Coins, nails, chains and pins by the kilo – in your stomach! Doctors refer to this pathological disorder of eating things that are not supposed to be eaten as pica syndrome. Those affected often swallow ash, chalk or soap, but toothbrush heads and burnt matches can also find their way into peoples’ stomachs. And sometimes even coins.

Coins in your stomach are anything but healthy. Those who suffer from the so-called pica disorder swallow kilos of small change.

Coins in your stomach are anything but healthy. Those who suffer from the so-called pica disorder swallow kilos of small change.

Coins are rarely found on the menu

Only six cases of people suffering from pica who were prone to swallowing coins have been listed in medical literature since 1975. However, any case of pica you read about leaves you stunned by how much a human body can endure. Could you have imagined somebody can live with a steel chain inside of them?
It makes you ask yourself: How in the world does someone come up with the idea of swallowing coins? And why? It is unlikely that they are motivated by the bad interest rate of their banking account. More often than not, people who suffer from mental illnesses are the ones who are diagnosed with pica, but young children and pregnant women are also known to have been affected. Admittedly, we can explain the latter more easily, seeing as children are still exploring themselves and the world around them, and pregnant women find themselves in a transitional phase that does not last forever.

Cash can kill you

Pica becomes dangerous when somebody adds coins to their meal plan for years or even decades. As was the case in 2002, when a 62-year-old man from France was taken to the hospital with stomach pains. His family immediately informed the doctors about his mental issues and the fact that he had repeatedly swallowed coins which he had to have removed a few times already. And the surgeons really did find about 350 francs and euro coins (weight: 6 kilos, face value: about 570 euros). The man later died from surgery-related complications.

Ironmonger’s shop or digestive tract?

In November of 2017, the Times of India published a list of things a team of doctors had taken out of a 32-year-old patient’s stomach: 150 iron nails, 263 coins, a steel chain for dogs, a long metal strip, a sewing machine needle, an iron spike … The coins made up a total value of 2000 rupees (about 24 euros), the rest of the objects weighed 2 kilos – leaving out the chain, that is. According to one of the doctors, the patient had been suffering from depression and had been swallowing metal items for a year without his family noticing anything.

A new record: 8 kilos of money

A 51-year-old man from Japan set a sad new record in 2017: surgeons removed 1,894 coins weighing a total of 8 kilos from his stomach. The doctors documented the find in a very detailed list: 140 1-Yen coins, 99 5-Yen coins, 1,642 10-Yen coins, 8 50-Yen coins und 5 100-Yen coins. This unfathomable amount of metal had already caused a hole in the stomach wall.
Although 10-Yen coins are made of 95 percent copper, the man’s blood values were normal. He is said to have suffered from depression and schizophrenia for decades but had only begun swallowing the unbelievable amount coins a little while before. Lucky for him, the money had not yet started corroding.

Zinc or copper? Death or life?

It is more the metal the coins are made of than their weight which determines the consequences. In 2008, a U.S-American woman suffering from schizophrenia had set the “record” at the time: doctors removed 600 coins from her stomach. Most of the pieces were pennies, which, for financial reasons, are made of a massive zinc core covered with a thin layer of copper. After the copper had dissolved in the woman’s stomach, the zinc core caused a multiple organ failure.
In the 1980s, when pennies were still largely made of copper, such instances still looked a little different. Back then, a man went to see a doctor as he was constantly fatigued. It turned out, the high copper levels in his blood were the reason for it – caused by money he had swallowed.

Children and coins: the currency makes a difference

Young kids are known for putting anything and everything in their mouths, sometimes even coins. As a parent, you immediately ask yourself: how dangerous is it really if my child accidentally swallows a coin? The good news (in Europe) is: according to a study, euro coins do not develop sharp edges, but remain relatively harmless if they are attacked by gastric acid. The same goes for the release of metal. U.S. coins are much more dangerous. They are more likely to cause internal injuries and increased zinc values in children’s bodies.
You can find out more on the topic of coins and health in the first issue of MintWorld Compendium, which is available for free on our website.

The Times of India reported on the coin swallowing case in India.

The journal „Acute Medicine & Surgery“ 5, 2 published a detailed analysis of the Japanese case, including pictures, in April of 2018.

NBC News reported on the case of the man in France.

A detailed article published in Le Monde mentions additional cases.

The corresponding Wikipedia article explains the pica disorder in more detail.

The Royal Canadian Mint employee who smuggled gold out of the mint in his rectum did not suffer from pica! But perhaps he could have used it as an excuse …

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