Geologist Harrison Schmitt performs Moon tasks during Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Note suit covered by lunar dust.
Credit: NASA

New research finds breathing lunar dust could cause health problems for astronauts spending long periods of time on the Moon.

Researchers at New York’s Stony Brook University find 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, according to a press statement.

“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,” said Bruce Demple, a biochemist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and senior author of the new study.

Flow chart shows the possible health effects of breathing lunar dust, in both the short- and long-term.
Credit: Rachel Caston

Hay fever-like reactions

Demple explains that Moon dust caused reactions similar to hay fever in astronauts who visited the lunar surface during the Apollo missions. Their experience coupled with the new study’s results suggest prolonged exposure to lunar dust could impair airway and lung function.

If the dust induces inflammation in the lungs, it could increase the risk of more serious diseases like cancer, Demple said.

Apollo 17 helmets and spacesuits stuffed inside lunar lander following the last human treks on the Moon in December 1972.
Credit: NASA

Lunar simulants

In the new study, Rachel Caston, a geneticist at Stony Brook University School of Medicine and lead author said human lung cells and mouse brain cells were exposed to several types of lunar soil simulants – soil found here on Earth that mimics the lunar highlands and the Moon’s volcanic plains. For example, JSC-1A simulant is low-titanium mare volcanic ash from Arizona that resembles lunar maria. Also used was a simulant from the Colorado School of Mines, developed from Colorado lava.

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. She and her colleagues found 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. The simulants killed the human lung cells so effectively the researchers couldn’t measure the DNA damage. The simulants also caused significant DNA damage in mouse neurons.

The study “Assessing Toxicity and Nuclear and Mitochondrial DNA Damage Caused by Exposure of Mammalian Cells to Lunar Regolith Simulants” was supported by a grant from NASA and appears in GeoHealth, a journal of the American Geophysical Union and can be found here:

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/2017GH000125

 

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