The moon is toxic

Jul 11, 2012 by Jason Major, Universe Today
Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke with a dust-coated LRV. Side image: a dusty Gene Cernan in the LM at the end of an Apollo 17 EVA. Credit: NASA/JSC

As our closest neighbor in space, a time-capsule of planetary evolution and the only world outside of Earth that humans have stepped foot on, the Moon is an obvious and ever-present location for future exploration by humans. The research that can be done on the Moon — as well as from it — will be invaluable to science. But the only times humans have visited the Moon were during quick, dusty  jaunts on its surface, lasting only 2-3 days each before departing. Long-term human exposure to the lunar environment has never been studied in depth, and it’s quite possible that — in addition to the many inherent dangers of living and working in space – the Moon itself may be toxic to humans.

An international team of researchers has attempted to quantify the health dangers of the — or at least its dust-filled regolith. In a paper titled “Toxicity of ” (D. Linnarsson et al.) the health hazards of the Moon’s fine, powdery dust — which plagued Apollo astronauts both in and out of their suits — are investigated in detail (or as best as they can be without actually being on the Moon with the ability to collect pristine samples.)

Within their research the team, which included physiologists, pharmacologists, radiologists and toxicologists from 5 countries, investigated some of the following potential health hazards of lunar dust:

Inhalation. By far the most harmful effects of lunar dust would come from inhalation of the particulates. Even though lunar explorers would be wearing protective gear, suit-bound dust can easily make its way back into living and working areas — as Apollo astronauts quickly discovered. Once inside the lungs the super-fine, sharp-edged lunar dust could cause a slew of health issues, affecting the respiratory and cardiovascular system and causing anything from airway inflammation to increased risks of various cancers. Like pollutants encountered on , such as asbestos and volcanic ash, lunar dust particles are small enough to penetrate deep within lung tissues, and may be made even more dangerous by their long-term exposure to proton and UV radiation. In addition, the research suggests a microgravity environment may only serve to ease the transportation of dust particles throughout the lungs.

Skin Damage. Lunar regolith has been found to be very sharp-edged, mainly because it hasn’t undergone the same kind of erosive processes that soil on Earth has. Lunar soil particles are sometimes even coated in a glassy shell, the result of rock vaporization by meteorite impacts. Even the finer particles of dust — which constitute about 20% of returned lunar soil samples — are rather sharp, and as such pose a risk of skin irritation in instances of exposure. Of particular note by the research team is abrasive damage to the outer layer of skin at sites of “anatomical prominence”, i.e., fingers, knuckles, elbows, knees, etc.

“The dust was so abrasive that it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on Jack [Schmitt's] boot,” said Professor Larry Taylor, Director of the Planetary Geosciences Institute, University of Tennessee (2008).

Eye Damage. Needless to say, if particles can pose abrasive damage to human skin, similar danger to the eyes is also a concern. Whether lunar dust makes its way into the eye via airborne movement (again, much more of a concern in microgravity) or through direct contact from fingers or another dust-coated object, the result is the same: danger of abrasion. Having a scratched cornea is no fun, but if you’re busy working on the Moon at the time it could turn into a real emergency.

While the research behind the paper used data about airborne pollutants known to exist on Earth and simulated lunar dust particles, actual lunar dust is harder to test. The samples returned by the Apollo missions have not been kept in a true lunar-like environment — being removed from exposure to radiation and not stored in a vacuum, for instance — and as such may not accurately exhibit the properties of actual dust as it would be encountered on the Moon. The researchers conclude that only studies conducted on-site will fill the gaps in our knowledge of lunar dust toxicity. Still, the research is a step in the right direction as it looks to ensure a safe environment for future explorers on the Moon, our familiar — yet still alien — satellite world.

Read the team’s paper in full here.

“The Apollo astronauts reported undesirable effects affecting the skin, eyes and airways that could be related to exposure to the dust that had adhered to their space suits during their extravehicular activities and was subsequently brought into their spacecraft," said Dag Linnarsson, lead author, Toxicity of Lunar Dust.

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User comments : 19

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Jeddy_Mctedder
2.8 / 5 (9) Jul 11, 2012
this has been known for a LONG TIME. any moon colony would have to contend with this. it makes no sense. there's no atmosphere and no hope of terraforming. colonizing the moon makes no sense whatsoever. at all. its far safer to be in orbit around the earth than on the moon---subject to constant attack by this 'dust'.
rubberman
2.9 / 5 (10) Jul 11, 2012
If it can wear through 3 layers of "kevlar like" material, filtering it out of the air will prove to be very problematic. The filters will be need constant replacement and the mechanisms generating the airflow to draw the particles through the filter will also suffer.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.5 / 5 (26) Jul 11, 2012
If it can wear through 3 layers of "kevlar like" material, filtering it out of the air will prove to be very problematic. The filters will be need constant replacement and the mechanisms generating the airflow to draw the particles through the filter will also suffer.
You are extrapolating a future tech which does not yet exist. These are conditions to be accommodated. Engineers are very clever people.

Large areas of regolith may have to be fused, processed, or paved in proximity to humans. We have a great deal of experience via sterile manufacturing, with decontamination and isolation. But most work on the surface will be done by machines.

Kevlar was designed to be strong in tension. Similarly, materials and assemblies can be designed to be abrasion-resistant.
gmfr
5 / 5 (6) Jul 11, 2012
If it can wear through 3 layers of "kevlar like" material, filtering it out of the air will prove to be very problematic. The filters will be need constant replacement and the mechanisms generating the airflow to draw the particles through the filter will also suffer.


I read recently that this dust has a charge which makes it much easier to remove with properly designed electrostatic filters (which could also drive air with no moving parts).
Shootist
3.5 / 5 (8) Jul 11, 2012
If it can wear through 3 layers of "kevlar like" material, filtering it out of the air will prove to be very problematic. The filters will be need constant replacement and the mechanisms generating the airflow to draw the particles through the filter will also suffer.


I read recently that this dust has a charge which makes it much easier to remove with properly designed electrostatic filters (which could also drive air with no moving parts).


And if it doesn't have an electric charge, it can be given one. This is/will be a non-issue.
El_Nose
3 / 5 (7) Jul 11, 2012
@ jeddy

There is no hope of terraforming Mars either -- Venus is the next best possibility if everything didn't dissolve in its atmosphere

@otto

Most of the work - above or under ground will be done by machines

Make no mistake, humans may one day operate on the moon but all work on and in the moon will be done by machines with a human supervisor. Robotics has come a long way and will play the absolute biggest part in any colonization effort

@shootist

that is a big assumption -- if it doesn't have a charge it will be given one -- charge or whether or not something is an ion is totally dependent on features that are almost immutable. You can't give dirt a higher chare on earth, you can make a material on your doormat have such a large electrostatic charge that any dirt that has a slight charge will cling. But you aren't changing any property of the dirt.
Ober
4.7 / 5 (6) Jul 11, 2012
Well I'm going on TV with a new infomercial selling Moon Regolith sand paper / cosmetic dermal abrasion technology. Imagine putting this stuff into bars of soap, for that extra clean feeling?? It can even remove the rust from your car and barnicles from boats. Girls, sick of shaving your legs?? Well just scrape those hair follicles away with New improved Lunar Regolith de-hairer!! The follicles are simply ripped right out of your skin!!! Suffer from eczema, and want a real good scratching device, then our Lunar Regolith Epidermal Removal tool is just for you. (Disclaimer, total removal of skin may entice infection). Suffer from warts in an embarassing location, no problem, Lunar Regolith encrusted cylinders can be fitted to any household drill and used to bore the entire wart out in just a matter of seconds. (Blood suction device and corteriser sold separately). You could also replace sand and do Regolith blasting to clean bridges.
I'll advertise "As used by the Apollo Astronauts!!!!"
GaryB
3.5 / 5 (4) Jul 11, 2012
The one law of engineering is: For every problem, there exists a technical fix.
PPihkala
4 / 5 (2) Jul 11, 2012
To me it sounds that they would need something like H2O-vacuum that will filter the air through water or some other liquid to trap the harmful dust inside human living spaces in moon. But even that would be only partial solution to this dusty problem.
rubberman
1 / 5 (2) Jul 12, 2012
Maybe just a good mat and a sign on the airlock that says "please wipe your feet".
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.3 / 5 (19) Jul 12, 2012
Well I'm going on TV with a new infomercial selling Moon Regolith sand paper / cosmetic dermal abrasion technology. Imagine putting this stuff into bars of soap, for that extra clean feeling??
Sorry earthers beat you to it-
http://www.lavasoap.com/

-As settlement may take place in polar craters with much water, this may be thawed and refrozen to act as pavement; or just scraped and leveled off.
EricNoot
not rated yet Jul 12, 2012
NASA had plans that showed a suited astronaut stepping up onto a meshed porch in front of their lunar base's airlock. This porch has an arched frame with brushes to knock off most of the suit's dust. The astronaut turns around a few times there, then steps into the airlock. After the airlock fills, water showers finish cleaning the suit, then the astronaut steps out of it to enter the habitat. Water gets filtered and recycled. It may not be as simple as leaving your shoes off at the door, but it could be functional. The best solutions would probably be thought up by the folks that'll live there on the Moon.
Shootist
1 / 5 (1) Jul 14, 2012

that is a big assumption -- if it doesn't have a charge it will be given one -- charge or whether or not something is an ion is totally dependent on features that are almost immutable. You can't give dirt a higher chare on earth, you can make a material on your doormat have such a large electrostatic charge that any dirt that has a slight charge will cling. But you aren't changing any property of the dirt.


Not at all. Walk into airlock with dirty spacesuit. Zap the space suit negative, zap the walls positive. Brush spacesuit. Bingo, negatively charged moon dust is repelled by negatively charged spacesuit and clings to the positively charged walls. Easy Peasy Japaneasy.

The air filters at Heinlein Station (at Luna City) will work the same way, ionizing dust and collecting it on charged plates.
ShotmanMaslo
1 / 5 (1) Jul 15, 2012
Sticky surfaces to catch the dust or coveralls for spacesuits that are discarded before returning are also an option.
Anda
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
El_nose, u made me laugh so much. U can go to hell alone if u wish (venus) :)
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
If it can wear through 3 layers of "kevlar like" material, filtering it out of the air will prove to be very problematic.

Habitats may have the ability to pump the air first through a liquid to get rid of any dust therein (something that is not so much an option for spacesuits).
But dragging in lunar dust from EVA (or better 'ESA') activities will be a real problem.
Unless we solve the gravity problem I don't really see how humans can survive (much less procreate) on the Moon (or Mars)
Venus is actually better. The environment is much harsher but that is still more within our technical capabilities than creating artificial gravity on a planet.

The one law of engineering is: For every problem, there exists a technical fix.

...unless you formulate problem that runs up against a fundamental law of physics.
SatanLover
1 / 5 (1) Jul 16, 2012
The one law of engineering is: For every problem, there exists a technical fix.

...unless you formulate problem that runs up against a fundamental law of physics.

is this not where graviton and higgs boson research comes in?
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.6 / 5 (17) Jul 17, 2012
But dragging in lunar dust from EVA (or better 'ESA') activities will be a real problem.
You mean 'a real challenge for scientists and engineers which they will undoubtedly solve' -dont you?
Unless we solve the gravity problem I don't really see how humans can survive (much less procreate) on the Moon (or Mars)
Forgive me but maybe you cannot envision it because you are a software engineer and not a real one?
antialias_physorg
not rated yet Jul 18, 2012
You mean 'a real challenge for scientists and engineers which they will undoubtedly solve' -dont you?

We're talking about the moon. Putting stuff up there will, for the first few decades, involve doing it as simply as possible. Yes, if you have a fully staffed dry cleaning service then you can probably get out every microspeck of dirt - but that's not realistic in the beginning. We know that lunar dust can work its way inside the suits. I Imagine that we can come up with something that ill get the outside reasonably clean, but the suit will come inside the station and the dust lodged inside will hit the atmosphere there.

Forgive me but maybe you cannot envision it because you are a software engineer

Bzzt. I am a real engineer - with the university diploma to prove it. How about you? I only work as a software engineer.
We're talking short/mid term Moon/Mars bases here. I see no development in antigrav on the horizon - do you?