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4 Terrifying Reasons Moondust Can Murder You

Footprint left by the astronauts in the Sea of Tranquility Source: NASA
A recent study says moondust can permanently damage your DNA.

Harrison Hagan "Jack" Schmitt, 82, is a geologist and the last person to walk on the moon. He's also the last surviving member of the Apollo 17 mission.

Back in December 1972, he and astronaut Eugene Cernan finished a successful survey of the Moon's Sea of Serenity. They returned to the lunar lander and brushed off some of the moondust that caked their suits and removed their helmets. It smelled like gunpowder in the lander. Suddenly, Schmitt had a massive sneezing fit. His eyes reddened. His throat itched. His sinuses clogged.

"I didn’t know I had lunar dust hay fever," Schmitt later said. "It’s funny they don’t check for that," Joseph Allen at Mission Control joked at the time. "Maybe that’s the trouble with the cheap noses, Jack." The symptoms lasted for about two hours.

What seemed like a funny joke turns out to be deadly serious. According to the journal GeoHealth a single scoop of the abrasive dust "proved toxic enough to kill up to 90 percent of the lung and brain cells exposed to it". Why?

1. Moon Dust is Sharp

Lunar soil is the fine fraction of the regolith - the layer of material - found on the surface of the Moon. It's very different from Earth dust. Mainly because there's no wind on the moon. The dust particles never erode. So each grain of is insanely sharp and abrasive. If an astronaut breaths too deeply it can slice into an astronaut's lung cells.

The moon is covered with dust from meteoric impacts and bombardment by interstellar charged atomic particles over years. It's like powdered glass. The stuff is so jagged that a deep breath could lodge the dust in the lungs and make a hole in the alveolar sacs and ducts.

This causes a condition similar to "stone-grinders disease" or silicosis. It's a deadly condition that commonly killed coal miners and still kills hundreds every year.

The fine powder not only chews up lungs, Taylor said the dust was so abrasive "it actually wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on Jack’s boot."

2. Moon Dust Has A Lot of Iron 

Lunar dust also has a lot of metallic iron (Fe0). A little iron is good. But that extra iron has recently been implicated in hypertension among Apollo astronauts.

While it's rarely fatal in adults approximately 3 grams of iron is lethal for a two-year-old.

Moondust is magnetic and tiny specks of iron are embedded in each dust particle's glassy shell.

"Those tiny blebs of pure iron we see on the surface of lunar grains are likely to be released from the outside edges of the particle in the lungs and enter the bloodstream," according to Bonnie Cooper at NASA's Johnson Space Center.

3. Moon Dust Floats

Since there's no atmosphere in space the moon is constantly bombarded by solar winds and charged particles. The dust can become electrostatically charged and cling to surfaces.

"This charge can be so strong that the soil particles actually levitate above the lunar surface," the authors wrote in the new study.

Those particles can cling to surfaces in the cracks and crevices of an astronaut's space suit. The small particles can clog equipment and play havoc on the human body.

4. Moon Dust Destroys Cells

Lunar dust is expensive. A small white pouch of the stuff sold for $2 million. So they used five Earth-sourced simulants to represent the dust. These included volcanic ash from Arizona, dust from a Colorado lava flow and a glassy, lab-made powder designed by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in lunar soil studies.

They mix their soil samples with lab-grown human lung cells and mouse brain cells. The results were terrifying.

24 hours later, the researchers found that every soil type caused some degree of brain and lung cell death. Some of the finest-grain samples killed up to 90 percent of the cells that they were exposed to. Cells that weren't destroyed showed signs of DNA damage. That damage can lead to cancer or neurodegenerative diseases.

"Clearly, avoidance of lunar dust inhalation will be important for future explorers," the authors wrote. If we're ever planning to build a Moon or Mars base this needs to be resolved.

Thankfully NASA is taking it seriously and are developing several methods of fighting and controlling lunar dust.

"Project Dust" or "The Dust Management Project" (DMP) was "tasked with the evaluation of lunar dust effects, assessment of the resulting risks, and development of mitigation and management strategies and technologies related to Exploration Systems architectures". The study was headed by Masami Nakagawa, associate professor in the mining engineering department of the Colorado School of Mines.

They came up with a variety of methods to protect astronauts from the effects. These methods can also be used on Earth for industrial purposes.

 Hopefully, this dusty problem will soon be solved. Russell Kerschmann, a pathologist at the NASA Ames Research Center said, "I strongly believe it's a problem that can be controlled."

Are you surprised at how deadly moondust is?

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