Astronauts of the future spending long periods of time on the moon could suffer from bronchitis and other health problems by inhaling tiny particles of lunar dust, study indicates.
Simulated lunar soil is toxic to human lung and mouse brain cells. Up to 90 percent of human lung cells and mouse neurons died when exposed to dust particles that mimic soils found on the moon’s surface.
The results show that breathing toxic dust, even in minute quantities, could pose a health hazard to future astronauts traveling to the moon, Mars, or other airless planetary bodies.
Planetary Dust Risks
Space agencies already knew that exposure to the space environment and zero gravity can be harmful to human health, but planetary dust poses an additional risk that has been mostly overlooked.
“There are risks to extraterrestrial exploration, both lunar and beyond, more than just the immediate risks of space itself,”
Lunar dust caused reactions similar to hay fever in astronauts who visited the moon during the Apollo missions. Their experience coupled with the new results suggest prolonged exposure to lunar dust could impair airway and lung function, says Bruce Demple, a biochemist and senior author of the study.
If the dust induces inflammation in the lungs, it could increase the risk of more serious diseases like cancer.
“If there are trips back to the moon that involve stays of weeks, months or even longer, it probably won’t be possible to eliminate that risk completely,”
The moon has no atmosphere, so its soil is constantly bombarded by charged particles from the upper layers of the sun that stream through space. These charged particles cause lunar soil to become electrostatically charged, like static cling on clothing.
Lunar Hay Fever
When US astronauts visited the moon during the Apollo missions, they brought lunar soil into the command module when it clung to their spacesuits. After inhaling the fine dust, Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt described having a reaction he called “lunar hay fever” — sneezing, watery eyes, and a sore throat.
The symptoms were short lived, but researchers wondered how lunar dust could affect astronauts’ health long term and if it could cause problems similar to those caused by toxic dust on Earth.
Previous research has shown breathing toxic dust from volcanic eruptions, dust storms, and coal mines can cause bronchitis, wheezing, eye irritation, and lung tissue scarring. Dust particles can accumulate in a person’s airways and the smallest particles can infiltrate alveoli, the tiny sacs where carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen in the lungs.
The dust can also damage DNA, which can cause mutations and lead to cancer.
Credit: Rachel Caston
For the new study, researchers exposed human lung cells and mouse brain cells to several types of lunar soil simulants. Samples of lunar soil are too scarce and valuable to use in everyday experiments, so the researchers used dust samples from Earth that resemble soil found in lunar highlands and the moon’s volcanic plains.
Caston grew the cells under controlled conditions and exposed them to the various types of dust. She counted how many cells were left and measured whether the simulants caused DNA damage.
All the simulant types killed or damaged the cells’ DNA to some degree. Simulants ground to a powder fine enough to be inhaled killed up to 90 percent of both cell types— so effectively, in fact, researchers couldn’t measure the DNA damage. The simulants also caused significant DNA damage in mouse neurons.
The researchers are not sure how the simulants kill cells, but they suspect they could be initiating an inflammatory response within the cell or generating free radicals, which strip electrons from molecules and prevent them from functioning properly.
Top Image: Geologist and astronaut Harrison Schmitt, Apollo 17 lunar module pilot, is pictured here using an adjustable sampling scoop to retrieve lunar samples during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Lunar dust can be seen clinging to Schmitt’s space suit. Credit: NASA