WASHINGTON -- We may be facing a recession, but that's not the reason U.S. dollars are fading away.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing blames the ink.
George Washington's face is looking especially pale on some $1 bills, and small sections of black ink are flaking off other denominations because, the bureau claims, it was sent a batch of ink of "inferior quality" last year.
The bureau realized the problem when some bills failed durability tests, which entail folding and washing the bills repeatedly. But before the defective ink was discovered, an unknown quantity was released into circulation.
Because the bad batch of ink was used at the same time as the regular ink, a bureau spokeswoman said, there is no way of knowing how many bills were affected, although the number was "quite limited." The faulty ink was used on all denominations, but especially $1 and $5 bills.
Approximately 7 billion Federal Reserve notes, as bills are officially known, are produced annually -- but the problem of defective ink is a new one, the spokeswoman said.
The ink in question was supplied to the government's money-printing operation by SICPA Securink Corp. of Springfield, Va. The company has supplied more than 90 percent of the ink used by the bureau since 1984. Last year, it provided about 4.5 million pounds of ink.
Company spokeswoman Cynthia Rapp said that the ink had been supplied according to bureau instructions and that the bureau had "tested and found that the ink was acceptable." Bureau representatives would not comment on what they believed was wrong with the ink.
The faded bills, which are still considered legal tender, could remain in circulation for years. But the majority will be sorted out in Federal Reserve Bank currency sorting machines -- which routinely look for worn, torn or dirty bills as well as counterfeit ones. If a note is considered unfit for circulation, it is removed, shredded and replaced.
At the Federal Reserve in Baltimore, an average of 3.2 million bills go through sorting machines a day, and about 70 percent are returned to circulation, according to spokesman Jim McEntee. He said the Baltimore bank had seen no recent significant increase in rejected notes.
The average life of a $1 bill is 18 months.
Only the fronts of the bills and only the black ink are faulty. But some testy vending machines -- which reject older bills -- have also rejected the notes with flaking ink.
Area collectors say the bills are of no real value for hobbyists because the ink is not considered an error and because a substantial number of the notes are in circulation.