Chemical Contamination on ISS Exceeds Earth Levels

Chemical Contamination on ISS Exceeds Earth Levels

Space Station Living: A Dusty Dilemma

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are living in an environment that contains higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals than seen in American homes

Living in space has always fascinated us Earth-dwellers. The International Space Station (ISS) holds a peculiar allure that draws our attention to the brave astronauts who call it home. However, new research reveals that their “home” is imbued with higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals than those found in typical American homes. This discovery not only brings to light the challenges faced by these astronauts but also has tangible implications for future space station and habitat design.

“These findings have a significant impact on the design and construction of future spacecraft and habitats”, says study co-author Stuart Harrad from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom[^1^]. While concentrations of organic contaminants discovered in the dust from the ISS often exceed median values found in homes and other indoor environments across the U.S. and western Europe, the levels of these compounds are generally within the range found on Earth[^1^].

Among the harmful chemicals found in this “space dust” were polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD), “novel” brominated flame retardants (BFRs), organophosphate esters (OPEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)[^1^]. These chemicals have been used in various applications such as electrical and electronic equipment, building insulation, furniture fabrics and foams, stain-proofing agents for fabrics and clothing, and even in hydrocarbon fuels[^1^][^2^].

Some of these chemicals have been banned or limited due to their adverse effects on human health[^1^]. The study authors note that the use of commercially available items brought on board by astronauts, such as cameras, MP3 players, tablet computers, medical devices, and clothing, are also potential sources for the many chemicals detected[^1^].

Living in space isn’t as simple as it seems. On the ISS, the air is constantly recirculated, with about eight to ten changes per hour[^1^]. While CO2 and gaseous trace contaminants are removed, it is uncertain to what extent this process eliminates chemicals like BFRs[^1^]. In the microgravity environment of the ISS, particles float around according to ventilation system flow patterns, eventually settling on surfaces and air intakes[^1^]. The screens covering the HEPA filters accumulate this debris, and weekly vacuuming becomes necessary to maintain efficient filtration[^1^].

The discovery of higher levels of potentially harmful chemicals on the ISS provides valuable insights for the future. It calls for careful material choices during the early stages of designing and constructing space stations and habitats[^1^]. The implications are far-reaching, as the health and wellbeing of astronauts are of utmost importance for successful and sustainable space exploration.

The researchers behind this study hope that their findings will contribute to the development of safer and more habitable space environments. As we venture further into the cosmos, it becomes increasingly vital to understand and mitigate the potential risks associated with living in space. Through continued research and innovative solutions, we can ensure the wellbeing of those who push the boundaries of human exploration.


[^1^] University of Birmingham. (August 8, 2023). “Astronauts living on International Space Station surrounde