Unveiling Airborne Hazards: Chemical Pollutants Discovered on the International Space Station
A group of British scientists conducted a groundbreaking study analyzing the chemical composition of dust particles in the air of the International Space Station (ISS). The results revealed that the atmosphere on the ISS is not only far from sterile but also more polluted than the average households in Europe and the United States.
Using vacuum bags from the station’s vacuum cleaners, which the crew uses to clean air filters, scientists analyzed the air quality on the ISS. Despite the air being refreshed up to ten times an hour, fine dust, lint, hair, and crumbs settle either on surfaces within the station or on the filters. The crew typically cleans the filters with vacuum cleaners about once a week. Several dust-filled vacuum bags were brought back to Earth, and one was sent to the University of Birmingham for analysis, leading to the publication of a scientific article.
The study revealed that potentially hazardous chemical pollutants in the air of the ISS can exceed the dust concentrations found on floors in households in the US and Western Europe. Moreover, some specific types of chemical substances have higher concentrations in the station’s air than in indoor spaces on Earth. This research highlights the importance of choosing construction materials and equipment for space habitats carefully to ensure the health and safety of astronauts and colonists.
The dust samples from the ISS contained an array of unwanted and even hazardous chemical compounds. Notably, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a relatively new class of persistent organic pollutants, were found. These substances provide fire resistance to fabrics and are commonly used in flame-retardant plastics. Although their concentration did not exceed average levels found in terrestrial homes, their presence in the air is still undesirable.
Other fire-resistant additives, such as brominated flame retardants and phosphorus-based compounds, were also detected in the dust samples. These additives find wide applications in electrical and electronic equipment, building insulation, furniture upholstery, textiles, and foam plastics. Some of these chemicals are considered potential carcinogens and are prohibited for use in the EU.
Furthermore, the dust from the ISS contained polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are present in hydrocarbon fuel and are emitted during combustion, as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), used in construction and window sealants. Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), used to protect fabrics from stains, were also identified. Several PFAS compounds have confirmed carcinogenic properties and are banned for use in developed countries. The presence of persistent organic pollutants on the ISS raises health concerns due to their potential harmful effects.
The elevated concentration of microplastics in the ISS air might be linked to the space environment, where radiation could impact materials more intensively. However, scientific studies on the accelerated degradation of common materials and plastics aboard space stations are yet to be conducted, awaiting researchers to explore this topic further.
- I'm Vasyl Kolomiiets, a seasoned tech journalist regularly contributing to global publications. Having a profound background in information technologies, I seamlessly blended my technical expertise with my passion for writing, venturing into technology journalism. I've covered a wide range of topics including cutting-edge developments and their impacts on society, contributing to leading tech platforms.
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