Just how poisonous is the moon?

The moon could be a highly toxic place, say scientists, warning of cancer and breathing problems even when astronauts remain in their space suits.

A team from the University of Tennessee says that long-term exposure to the dust could prove highly harmful; even short-term exposure has caused health problems in the past.

“The Apollo astronauts reported undesirable effects affecting the skin, eyes and airways that could be related to exposure to the dust that had adhered to their space suits during their extravehicular activities and was subsequently brought into their spacecraft,” reports lead author Dag Linnarsson.

The greatest risk, says the team, is inhalation. Even with the astronauts wearing protective suits, dust will be carried back into living quarters, where breathing it in can cause health problems from inflammation of the airways to cancer.

But there’s the danger of skin damage too: moon dust is extremely sharp-edged, so mcuh so that in the past it’s worn through the three layers of Kevlar-like material used to make astronauts’ boots.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the scientists are also worried about the effects of the dust on astronauts’ eyes – and a scratched cornea out in space, they point out, could have far more severe consequences than on Earth.

The team’s calling for more research – particularly as, they point out, samples of moon dust on Earth haven’t been kept in the same conditions as on the moon. What’s needed, they say, is a series of ground-based, low-gravity and in situ measurements to get a clearer idea of the risks.