Sciency Words: Silicosis

Sciency Words PHYS copy

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Every Friday, we take a look at a new and interesting scientific term to help us all expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s word is:


What’s the scariest thing about the Moon? Moondust.

My10 MoondustI’m glad you asked, Mr. Moon!

  • First, moondust gets all over your spacesuit. During the Apollo missions, astronauts found it was practically impossible to get all the dust off their spaceboots and spacesuits, possibly due to a sort of static cling effect. So astronauts wound up tracking a lot of this stuff back into the lunar lander.
  • Next, it gets in your air supply. Once all that moondust got into the lander, the Moon’s low gravity meant dust particles could drift about in the air a lot longer than they would on Earth—just waiting for someone to breathe them in.
  • Finally, it gets in your lungs. Roughly half of moondust is composed of fine grains of silicon dioxide. Essentially, moondust has the consistency of powdered glass. You don’t want that in your lungs.

On Earth, the inhalation of silica dust can cause a respiratory disease called silicosis. Symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, and swelling or inflammation of the lungs. Those most at risk include miners and quarry workers, as well as anyone working in the glass manufacturing industry.

At least one astronaut reported experiencing silicosis-like symptoms while on the Moon. Future Moon missions and possible lunar settlements will likely involve longer-term exposure and higher risks of respiratory diseases.

So while this may sound like an odd piece of advise, given that the Moon is airless, please be careful about the air you breathe on the Moon.

P.S.: Silicosis or similar respiratory conditions will also be problematic for Mars missions. The surface of Mars is covered in iron oxide dust (a.k.a. rust). I for one don’t want to breathe in flecks of rust any more than I want to inhale powdered glass. Martian soil may also contain other as-yet-unidentified chemicals that could be hazardous to human health.


Silicosis from MedLine Plus.

Don’t Breathe the Moondust from NASA Science.

The Mysterious Smell of Moondust from NASA Science.

Occupational Health: Lunar Lung Disease from Environmental Health Perspectives.

* * *

Today’s post is part of Moon month for the 2015 Mission to the Solar System. Click here for more about this series.

7 thoughts on “Sciency Words: Silicosis

  1. Sounds like we’ll need some airlocks with blowers to blow away and filter all the dust before we come inside.

    And, if we’re living in underground habitats, maybe we’ll have to coat the walls with something to keep more dust from crumbling off?


    1. This is true. The Apollo astronauts reported that the dust pretty much got everywhere and into everything, including their equipment. The problem is worse on Mars thanks to Martian sandstorms. It’s an ongoing concern for the Mars rovers, since they don’t really have the ability to dust themselves off.


      1. On the other hand, didn’t one of the Martian rovers end up getting its solar panels cleaned off by one of the dust storms? But yeah, it wouldn’t have needed to be cleaned off if it weren’t for the dust in the first place.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.