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Learning About Healthy Homes From NASA

By HHI Staff

NASA has done extensive research into the outgassing of materials used in spacecraft. They are interested in how these chemicals affect the sensitive electronic and optical equipment—and, of course, the health of the astronauts. Because astronauts must perform many varied and detailed operations while on an extended mission, NASA is very concerned about impairment of function. An unhealthy atmosphere inside a spacecraft can mean the crew won’t be able to perform at peak efficiency.


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Virtually everything that goes into a spaceship has been tested for its particular outgassing characteristics. Everything from fabric, paint, and caulking to adhesives, plastics, and foams is included in a computerized database. Some items—such as cameras, tapes, shaving cream, deodorants, etc.—are items found in the private sector, but many items are specialized and used only in the space program.[1]


According to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA:


People working inside tightly sealed office buildings have been known to suffer from "sick building syndrome," the result of breathing air polluted by toxic substances emitted from carpets, furniture, toner, and other paraphernalia of a modern workplace.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the ultimate tightly sealed building. Anything that enters the air stays there unless removed by an effective filtration system.


Advanced Environmental Monitoring and Control (AEMC) supports the development of monitoring instruments that can help to keep ISS air clean and safe, along with other aspects of its environment. Several of these technologies are being tested aboard the ISS not only for its own use, but in preparation for potential use on the Orion crew exploration vehicle and future habitats on the Moon and Mars.


Rapid, reliable detection is essential to keep spills or leaks of hazardous substances from posing a serious threat to the air supply of spacecraft and extraterrestrial habitats. Even without such an event, substances such as formaldehyde commonly outgas from upholstery, insulation, and other sources in amounts which might be insignificant for a typical Earth-based room, but which can build up to unhealthy levels in a small, closed system like the ISS before human senses can sound an alarm. Detecting trace levels of certain gases can also provide early warning of fire. AEMC is funding three different approaches to monitoring the condition of cabin atmospheres: the ENose, Vehicle Cabin Atmosphere Monitor, and Tunable Environmental Laser Spectrometer.


AEMC adheres to the standards that NASA has set on allowable limits for dozens of chemicals that could contaminate an astronaut's air or water. For air, these guidelines are called "Spacecraft Maximum Allowable Concentrations" (SMAC). For water, they are known as "Spacecraft Water Exposure Guidelines" (SWEG). NASA currently evaluates biological hazards on a flight-by-flight basis.

NASA’s outgassing testing is done in a closed chamber in which individual items are heated to a temperature of 120°F for 72 hours. This causes the volatile gases to be released at an accelerated rate. The gases are then analyzed and quantified. Vacuum testing involves placing materials in a similar chamber where a vacuum actually sucks out the various volatile chemicals that would normally outgas at a much slower rate. Actual air samples taken during space flights are also analyzed. A typical computer printout will list a material’s name, the manufacturer, a generic description, testing data, and the chemicals that were outgassed, with amounts. As an example, one particular adhesive was found to give off the following gases:[2] Carbon monoxide, C5 saturated & unsaturated alpihatic hydrocarbons. Formaldehyde, Acetaldehyde, 2-butanone, Methanol, Methyl propionate, Methyl formulate, Benzene, Ethanol, Methyl isobutenate, 2-propanone, Methylbenzene, 2-propanol, Hexamethylcyclotrisiloxane.

Obviously, there is a lot of valuable information in NASA’s database. However, much of it is useful only to the space program, because many of the materials tested are not available to the general public. However, many of the products we routinely build houses of simply cannot be used in a spacecraft because of excessive outgassing. Should this be food for thought?


[1] Haluk Ozkaynak and P. Barry Ryan, “Sources and emission rates of organic chemical vapors in homes and buildings” (Berlin: Proceedings of the 4th International Conference on Indoor Air Quality & Climate, Vol. 1, Volatile Organic Compounds, Combustion Gases, Particles and Fibers, Microbiological Agents, 1987): 3-7.

[2] MDAC-Houston Materials Testing Data Base, Report # 85-19534 01, (Tra Bond F113/F117-STEX), NASA computerized database.


(This article is from the archives of the original Healthy House Institute, and the information was believed accurate at the time of writing.)
(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The Healthy House Institute, LLC.) 





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Learning About Healthy Homes From NASA:  Created on December 5th, 2008.  Last Modified on February 28th, 2011


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