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A History of Space Toxicology Mishaps: Lessons Learned and Risk Management

Journal Article
ISSN: 1946-3855, e-ISSN: 1946-3901
Published July 12, 2009 by SAE International in United States
A History of Space Toxicology Mishaps: Lessons Learned and Risk Management
Citation: James, J., "A History of Space Toxicology Mishaps: Lessons Learned and Risk Management," SAE Int. J. Aerosp. 4(1):577-583, 2011,
Language: English


After several decades of human spaceflight, the community of space-faring nations has accumulated a diverse and sometimes harrowing history of toxicological events that have plagued human space endeavors almost from the very beginning. Some lessons have been learned in ground-based test beds and others were discovered the hard way - when human lives were at stake in space. From such lessons one can build a risk-management framework for toxicological events to minimize the probability of a harmful exposure, while recognizing that we cannot predict all possible events. Space toxicologists have learned that relatively harmless compounds can be converted by air revitalization systems into compounds that cause serious harm to the crew. Our toxic risk management strategy now includes an assessment of the fate of any compound that might be released into the atmosphere, and in addition, the environmental engineers determine if a compound could poison the air purification filter beds and thereby reduce their ability to protect crew health. We, of course, are aware that many propellants are highly toxic compounds, yet we have not always been able to thoroughly isolate the crew from exposure to these propellants. Leakage of fluids from systems has resulted in hazardous conditions at times, and the behavior of such compounds inside a spacecraft has taught us how to manage potentially harmful escapes should they occur. Potential combustion events are an ever-present threat to the wellbeing of the crew. Such events have been sufficiently common that we have learned that one cannot judge the health threat of a given fire by the magnitude of the event. Management of such risks demands monitoring of combustion products. In the category of unpredictable toxic events, if one assumes that fires are predictable, we can place experience with toxic microbial metabolites, upsets during repair operations, and discharges from filters that have accumulated a substantial load of pollutants in their absorption beds. Management of such events requires a broad-spectrum, real-time analytical capability to discern the identity and concentrations of pollutants if they enter the atmosphere. Mistakes are an integral part of any human activity, and the space-faring community must learn as much as possible from mistakes that result in toxic exposures to crews and from mistakes that were near misses.