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Toxic Dust and the Risks of Going to Mars

The prospect of landing humans on Mars for exploration and eventually even for colonization, mining, and for other reasons is becoming more realistic every year. As space technology advances, this kind of exploration has moved out of the world of science fiction and has become real science. Not everyone is excited about going to the red planet, though.

Some experts believe there are still far too many risks and dangers for humans to spend any period of time on Mars. One of the big risks may be the presence of toxic substances and minerals in the dust that could cause harm. Just like humans on earth are put at risk of exposure to asbestos and other harmful substances, especially in mining and similar industries, people on Mars would be at risk of being exposed and getting sick from harmful minerals, like gypsum and maybe even asbestos.

toxic dust on mars

Toxic Dust Exposure on Earth – Asbestos and Mesothelioma

Here on Earth, people are no strangers to the risks and health consequences of being around and inhaling toxic and damaging dust. Asbestos is one of the most harmful minerals and one that has caused lasting damage and fatal illnesses in thousands of people around the world.  Asbestos is a natural mineral that has long been mined and used for its properties of being strong, flexible, heat resistant, fire resistant, and inert.

Used for decades in large quantities in everything from building supplies to ships and elements in cars and machinery, many people were exposed to asbestos and inhaled the small fibers. These lodge in tissues in the body and cause damage that can lead to asbestosis, a lung scarring disease, lung cancer, or the aggressive and deadly type of cancer called mesothelioma.

While there are many ways that people have been exposed to asbestos, miners have been on the front lines. Even miners who do not work specifically in asbestos mines are at risk of exposure because asbestos can be found in natural deposits in all kinds of mines. It has also been used in mining equipment, further putting workers at risk. Miners known to have been exposed worked in asbestos mines, vermiculite mines, gypsum mines, coal, and taconite mines, among others.

Humans on Mars Could Face Similar Risks

One major reason that some people are against colonizing or working on Mars to exploit resources is the risk of exposure to toxic substances.  Thanks to the remote rovers and landers that have already explored part of the surface of Mars, we have a good idea of what chemicals and minerals are there. Experts have gathered to discuss the possibility of landing humans on Mars within the next 15 years and determined that toxic dust could be a big obstacle. Some of the issues include:

  • Silicates. Thanks to the robotic missions to Mars, we know that the surface of the red planet is covered in silicates. Silicates, or silica, are compounds composed of oxygen and silicon. Exposure to silicates is already a known risk to miners on Earth. Inhaling this dust can cause an illness called silicosis, which is progressive and that causes scarring in the lungs that is irreversible. Symptoms include shortness of breath, chest pains, coughing, and ultimately respiratory failure. Silicosis can also contribute to lung cancer, bronchitis, tuberculosis, and other illnesses.
  • Perchlorate. This chlorine- and oxygen-based compound has been detected on Mars by two separate rovers. Exposure to perchlorate contaminants can occur through eating and drinking. This chemical can cause nausea, vomiting, coughing, and eye or skin irritation. It also impacts the thyroid and may disrupt the production of thyroid hormones, which may cause lasting effects like weight loss, and potentially thyroid cancer. Furthermore, the ultraviolet light that strikes the surface of Mars because there is no ozone layer, likely reacts with perchlorate in the soil to create even more toxic materials.
  • Gypsum. The rovers have also found veins of gypsum, a mineral that is not as toxic as minerals like asbestos, but which can still cause a lot of damage in dust form. Gypsum is a hydrated calcium sulfate mineral that is common in mines on Earth and likely on Mars as well. There are set exposure limits for gypsum in the U.S. Exposure can cause irritation to the eyes, skin, and upper respiratory tract, as well as a persistent cough. Repeated exposure to gypsum dust can lead to symptoms similar to those seen in coal workers who have inhaled coal dust for years.

While the people who would go to Mars would wear protective gear when outside of special living units, the dust and other particles will still pose a big risk. They are expected to stick persistently to the suits, a phenomenon already witnessed on moon missions. Experts see it being impossible to prevent these dust particles from getting into the living quarters of residents on Mars.

Toxic Dust Could Derail Mars Plans

The presence of these three substances could seriously hinder or prevent long-term occupation of Mars by humans. There may even be more substances and minerals on the planet that the robotic landers have not yet detected. While we have learned how to mostly protect workers on Earth from harmful dusts that contain silica, asbestos, and other minerals, it will be much more difficult to do on Mars.

The dust particles on the planet are tiny and charged with electrostatics. This makes them extremely sticky, and some experts believe it will be impossible to prevent workers on Mars from bringing these particles into the living quarters. It seems inevitable that the particles will get in, that they will get into electronics and machinery, that they will clog up filters, and that they will be inhaled and ingested by workers.

Here on Earth, minerals like asbestos have been causing harm to humans for millennia. Now, we face similar risks by attempting to send workers to Mars. Silicates, perchlorate, gypsum dust, and other substances could cause people on Mars to get sick or even die from exposure. Experts and others will continue to debate the pros and cons of colonizing the red planet, but scientists and engineers must work out how to keep people safe.

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