Asbestos dust boldly going into outer space? Worrying news from NASA, the agency responsible for the US space programme, indicate a potential exposure to asbestos at the rocket propulsion laboratories. The media reports came just prior to Major Tim Peake becoming the first British astronaut to begin work at the International Space Station (ISS) on 15th December 2015.

Asbestos awareness to the presence of the fibre dust at the NASA site may not travel as fast as ISS, currently circling the earth at 5 miles per second. However, all manned Russian spaceflights take place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, located in the desert steppes of Kazakhstan, from where the mission was launched.

Asbestos still used in the US

It may not be widely known that the hazardous insulation material, which was first banned in the UK in the mid 1980s is still used in a variety of products in the US, including clothing, sheeting, tiles, cement, friction materials and sprayed coatings. The possibility that asbestos may be a source of contamination in future space travel cannot be dismissed despite of the enforcement of stringent procedures.

Reports in the local press say that at least four employees who worked on the third floor of a building where members of the Cassini-Huygens mission work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California site may have inhaled asbestos. Cassini–Huygens is an unmanned spacecraft, which began its mission to the planet Saturn in October 2007.

Entire floor was closed down

Construction had begun at the building, one of eleven premises on the site known to have been insulated with asbestos sprayed ceilings When the asbestos was first suspected, the entire floor was closed down and air samples taken, which revealed that two out of three samples were higher than the recommended safe levels.

The US Protection Agency (EPA) states that a safe occupancy level should be within 0.01 fibres per cubic centimetre. In the UK, The Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2012, sets the control limits for asbestos exposure to white asbestos (chrysotile) at 0.3 fibres per millilitre of air and 0.2 fibres per millilitre for all other asbestos types, averaged over a continuous period of 4 hours.

Renovations caused asbestos to disintegrate

NASA said that the four employees were relocated and the area immediately cleaned. It appears that the asbestos had been encapsulated to prevent the release of airborne fibres. However, the buildings renovations caused some of the asbestos to disintegrate with the possibility of the fibres breaking away and becoming airborne.

A spokesman for the EPA said that the floor is to remain closed out of extreme caution to safeguard against risk to the hundreds of lab employees despite current readings being within the safe level. A safety inspector also found evidence of asbestos in a telecommunications unit. Asbestos insulation was commonly used to line all types of utility units from fuse-boxes and wiring centres to industrial and military units.

NASA was founded in 1958, when asbestos was a commonly used and accepted building material both in the US and in the UK. Countless numbers of buildings still contain asbestos materials, which were never removed. As a result, the legacy of asbestos use over the last one hundred years continues to affect all types of workplaces and institutions in the twenty first century.

Little time left

The issue of significant amounts of asbestos in schools and hospitals is still a crucial concern across the UK. Increasingly, asbestos contamination and exposure is reported to have been disturbed in leisure centres, swimming pools, theatres, libraries, stores and factory units. Nearly every week in the UK, victims suddenly diagnosed with mesothelioma decades after retirement are reported trying to recall exactly how and where they were exposed to the deadly fibres.

Tragically, many have little time left before they are able to have their case heard. Since the launch of ISS in 1998, the space station would have orbited the earth some 100,000 times.