Space

Lunar dust could pose major health hazard

New research finds breathing lunar dust could cause health problems for astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon
New research finds breathing lunar dust could cause health problems for astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon
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Flow chart shows the possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term
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Flow chart shows the possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term
New research finds breathing lunar dust could cause health problems for astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon
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New research finds breathing lunar dust could cause health problems for astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon

There's frequently talk about returning astronauts to the Moon and establishing a permanent lunar base, but scientists at Stony Brook University say that prolonged exposure to lunar dust could make staying there a risky business. In tests, exposure to dust particles of simulated lunar soil resulted in up to 90 percent of human lung cells and mouse neurons being killed, with the potential for increased cancer risk also evident.

When the first American astronauts set foot on the Moon in 1969, one of the first things they encountered was the peculiar properties of the lunar dust that covers the surface of our only large natural satellite. Unlike the soil on Earth, lunar soil is the product of millions of years of micrometeorite impacts, extreme temperature variations, and constant cosmic ray bombardments occurring in a waterless vacuum.

Without the effects of oxygen, water, and biological activity to moderate them, the dust particles on the Moon become tiny, abrasive, chemically reactive, and carry a high static charge. The result is a very unpleasant blackish gray powder that clung fiercely to the astronaut's suits, wore at the joints that sealed their helmets, gloves, and other fittings, and produced hay fever symptoms that persisted even after returning to the orbiting Command Module.

Flow chart shows the possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term
Flow chart shows the possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term

Led by Rachel Caston, a geneticist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, the team's work on simulated lunar soil indicates that while the watery eyes and runny noses of the Apollo crews were only temporary, those working for months at a time at a manned lunar outpost could face more serious disorders, such as cancer.

According to Caston, the effects of lunar dust is similar to silicosis – a condition found in coal miners or those who breathe in toxic dust from dust storms or volcanic eruptions. The tiny silica particles settle in the alveoli of the lungs, where they can cause gross damage or even affect the DNA of cells, resulting in cancer.

Using recreated lunar soils designed to simulate those found in the lunar highlands, Caston's team exposed growing human lung cells and mouse brain cells to variants of the dust under controlled conditions. They found that when the dust was ground fine enough, it killed up to 90 percent of all cells. It also significantly damaged the DNA in the mouse neurons, but killed the human cells so effectively that it wasn't possible to measure DNA changes.

Exactly how the dust causes so much damage is still unclear, but the team believes that it may have to do with causing an inflammatory response inside the cells or by triggering the production of free radicals, which can strip electrons from certain molecules and negatively impact their functionality. But whatever the mechanism, the study indicates that lunar dust may be more than just a housecleaning problem.

The research was published in GeoHealth.

Source: Stony Brook University

5 comments
highlandboy
I wonder if this applies to all minimal atmosphere planets? Clearly decontamination showers would be required
DFrancis
Moisture is the critical missing factor. @highlandboy has the right idea of a decon shower, which would have to apply to all equipment that's been used outside. Doesn't have to be water, of course; any suitably inviscid, non-corrosive, non-conducting liquid to wash away the lunar dust should work.
Expanded Viewpoint
I don't see why it wouldn't, since you're talking about the same kinds of conditions, pretty much. Star systems that are too different from our own would be off of our visitation list anyway, so we'd have no interest in going there. That moon dust sounds like some pretty serious stuff!! If we were to seriously consider setting up a base on the Moon, it would have to be done with enough shielding to protect the people there from all that cosmic radiation, and time outside of the structure would have to be very limited. Robots would be required to do at least 99% of any work on the outside.
JustJim
Since the dust has such a high static charge it should be easy to attract to a negatively charged vacuum cleaner and eliminated from the living quarters. The dust would probably be banned in California.
SimonClarke
Prior to the Apollo landings it wasn't clear that this was going to be a problem. Jack Shmitt (I think it was him) got ill with the dust. we now know it is going to be a problem so it can be dealt with. Firstly the Apollo craft were the size of a shoe box, a permanent settlement will have a decontamination area. as other people have suggested there will be an anti static area that will get rid of most of it. Then you can have a brush down area where robotic arms can brush off any stubborn areas', there will be air flowing through the chamber that is filtered and as we know it's a problem a breathing mask or full respirator could be used as the people climb out of their suits. there is no need to actually come in contact with the dust so therefore there are no problems. additionally NASA has space suit systems that connect to the outside of rovers, buildings etc. so the dust doesn't get inside buildings.