Astronauts blame their space station symptoms on bad air

July 28, 1999

Is the International Space Station suffering from sick building syndrome? That's what NASA officials are wondering after astronauts who ventured inside earlier this year suffered headaches and burning eyes. One of them threw up, blaming the nascent space station's bad air.

When the space shuttle Discovery docked with the International Space Station in May, astronauts spent hours inside installing equipment. NASA isn't giving out many details, citing medical privacy. But it seems the reported symptoms can't entirely be attributed to Space Adaptation Syndrome, the nausea that many travellers in space suffer as they adjust to weightlessness.

Poor air quality might be to blame. According to documents leaked to the NASA Watch website, the symptoms tended to occur when panels lining the walls of the Russian Zarya module were open and astronauts had been working in close proximity for a number of hours. Opening the wall panels would disrupt air flow through Zarya, which might mean that a build-up of exhaled carbon dioxide is to blame. A more sinister problem would be the release of volatile chemicals from materials used to manufacture Zarya. According to the leaked documents, the astronauts described a definite odour in Zarya. They were concerned that there was a large amount of Velcro in the module and wondered whether its adhesive backing might be releasing chemicals into the air.

Unfortunately, no air samples were taken because the astronauts didn't mention their problems until they returned to Earth. "We weren't notified until two weeks after the landing," says Frank Culbertson, a deputy programme manager for the space station.

Although NASA officials don't believe there's a serious problem, they are planning to install air quality monitoring equipment before the first permanent crew arrives at the station sometime after March next year.
-end-
Author: Charles Seife, Washington DC
New Scientist issue 31 July 1999

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New Scientist

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