Scientists Alarmed by What Space Station Astronauts Appear to Be Breathing

Smelt It Dealt It

The dust floating around the International Space Station is way worse than what's milling around in your house or apartment — and the concentration is way higher, too.

In a new study, scientists affiliated with NASA's Glenn Research Center and the UK's University of Birmingham found that the ISS is home to a specific mix of dust particles that include, among other things, microplastics and the kinds of compounds found in flame retardants and building insulation.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, looked at the space station's specialized air filters to see what was left behind as the air was being circulated. The researchers found a number of chemicals, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), organophosphate esters (OPEs), and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — the now-infamous "forever chemicals."

While some of these chemicals like OPEs have previously been found to be potentially toxic at high levels, the health effects they're having on astronauts, if any, are still unclear.

But given their concentration, it's worth investigating.

"Our findings have implications for future space stations and habitats, where it may be possible to exclude many contaminant sources by careful material choices in the early stages of design and construction," said co-author Stuart Harrad, a professor of environmental chemistry at the University of Birmingham, in a statement.

Dust Devils

To be fair, the dust we breathe in our Earth-bound households is also often quite gross, and many of the aforementioned chemicals are not at all uncommon on terra firma. The difference between the dust we breathe in our households and this space station dust, the researchers suggested, is a matter of both concentration and filtration.

While the air on the ISS is "constantly recirculated" eight to ten times an hour using its specialized filtration system, as the statement notes, its filters are broadly speaking there to scrub carbon dioxide and other contaminants. However, how much of these chemicals gets filtered out too is anyone's guess.

What's worse: the high levels of ionizing radiation that the space station goes through can speed up the aging process of onboard plastics, which causes them to break down faster and turn into micro- or nanoplastics "that become airborne in the microgravity environment."

"This may cause concentrations and relative abundance of [potentially harmful chemicals] in ISS dust to differ notably from those in dust from terrestrial indoor microenvironments," the news release adds.

The researchers are now hoping that their research could aid scientists in designing future space habitats and making wiser material choices — so astronauts can breathe more easily.

More on the ISS: NASA Thrilled That Astronauts Drink 98 Percent of Recycled Bodily Fluids