For better or worse, NASA recently decided to shift its focus from Mars back to the Moon, with loose plans to one day set up a base there. But there could be some unwanted consequences for those Moon residents.
In a paper published in GeoHealth, researchers have found that Moon dust not only kills cells, but it can also alter your DNA. And that could increase one's risk of developing cancer.
“DNA damage can be both short‐term and long‐term problems, and it can affect both the nuclear and the mitochondrial genome,” the team led by Rachel Caston from Stony Brook University in New York wrote in their paper. “Mutations in nuclear DNA may lead to cell death or cancer.”
How did they come to this conclusion? Well, they didn’t use actual Moon dust as that’s quite hard to get hold of, which is a bit of a limitation of the study. Instead, they used simulated dust, such as volcanic ash from Arizona and bits of lava from Colorado.
While not perfect, that’s not a bad analog, because Moon dust is somewhat the remains of magma and lava that were once on the lunar surface but that have been destroyed by meteorite impacts.
From the Apollo missions, we know that Moon dust is super annoying. It’s incredibly small and gets everywhere, with astronauts reporting it was very hard to get rid of from their spacecraft. Previous research has shown it could be toxic if inhaled.
"There are risks to extraterrestrial exploration, both lunar and beyond, more than just the immediate risks of space itself," Caston said in a statement.
To make their findings, the team exposed human lung cells and mouse brain cells to these lunar soil stimulants. The cells were grown and then exposed to the dust, before being counted and checked for DNA damage.
The results showed that simulated soil fine enough to be inhaled killed 90 percent of cells. In fact, they were so effective at killing the human lung cells that the team couldn’t even measure the DNA damage, although they could in the mouse neurons.
In addition to the cancer risk mentioned earlier, volcanic ash on Earth can cause issues including bronchitis, and Moon dust could be just as harmful. It may even accumulate in the brain, although the exact effects of this are unknown.
“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 [cancer] completely,” the senior author on the paper, Bruce Demple, said in a statement.
So while going back to the Moon is desirable, there might be a few issues to iron out first.