Scientists reveal hidden danger on the International Space Station – and why it needs to be taken out of orbit soon

The air inside the International Space Station (ISS) is dirtier than the floor of an average UK or US home, a new study has found.

Astronauts at the orbital post may be breathing air containing nanoplastics, particles restricted by the European Chemicals Agency, and even known carcinogens.

British astronaut Tim Peake reads on the International Space Station


British astronaut Tim Peake reads on the International Space StationPhoto credit: ESA/NASA

While the air is constantly being circulated and CO2 removed, the structure is showing its age and scientists are unsure of the filtration system’s ability to remove certain chemicals.

The ISS has been in orbit for 24 years and is scheduled to be decommissioned by the end of the decade.

Hundreds of astronauts have flown through the space hub during this time, bringing with them a variety of personal items for their sometimes month-long stays.

A successor, Starlab, is already in the pipeline to replace him.

However, the scientists behind the study – the first of its kind relating to the ISS – say it will help develop new designs for the next space station and future spacecraft.

“Our findings have implications for future space stations and habitats, where it might be possible to eliminate many sources of pollution through careful material selection in the early stages of design and construction,” said study co-author Professor Stuart Harrad of the University of Birmingham , explained.

“While the concentrations of organic pollutants detected in dust from the ISS often exceeded the average levels found in homes and other indoor environments in the United States and Western Europe, levels of these compounds were generally in the range of levels found on Earth .”

The so-called “space dust” included polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD), “new” brominated flame retardants (BFRs), organophosphate esters (OPEs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), perfluoroalkyls (PFAS), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

Here’s what these particles actually mean:

  • BFRs and OPEs are used in electrical and electronic equipment, building insulation, upholstery fabrics, and foams.
  • PAHs are contained in hydrocarbon fuels and are emitted during combustion processes.
  • PCBs have been used as dielectric fluids in building and window sealants and in electrical equipment.
  • PFAS are used in anti-stain agents for fabrics and clothing.
    • However, their potential impact on human health has led to some being banned or restricted in their use.
  • PCBs and some PFAS, HBCDD and PBDE are considered persistent organic pollutants.
  • Some PAHs are considered carcinogenic to humans.
  • For some OPEs, a restriction by the European Chemicals Agency is being considered.

Birmingham scientists, along with NASA scientists, were sent a vacuum bag filled with debris from the ISS’s air filtration system to analyze.

Researchers suspect the air is slowly becoming clogged with particles from clothing lint, as well as personal items such as cameras, MP3 players, tablets, laptops and medical equipment.

According to the study, these are all potential sources of the chemicals found.

Astronaut Karen Nyberg demonstrates how to wash hair in space aboard the ISS


Astronaut Karen Nyberg demonstrates how to wash hair in space aboard the ISSPhoto credit: NASA
Also astronaut Alexander Gerst on board the orbital station


Also astronaut Alexander Gerst on board the orbital stationPhoto credit: Instagram / astro_alex_esa

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Alley Einstein

Alley Einstein is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Alley Einstein joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing

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