An increased level of toxic benzene inside the International Space Station (ISS) could be caused by the air filters installed in one of the American modules on board the space outpost, according to the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
Benzene is a natural part of crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke; it is used to make other chemicals for producing plastics, resins, nylon, and synthetic fibres.
In a report on Tuesday, NASA said that “charcoal only filters” would be installed in the Node 1 module, in order “to reduce the benzene level in the [ISS] atmosphere".
These filters will be “swapped out with the current Charcoal HEPA Integrated Particle Scrubber (CHIPS). This swap will address the concern that over time the charcoal portion of the CHIPS filter has absorbed benzene and other compounds could now potentially push the benzene off the filters contributing to the elevated benzene level”, the US space agency added.
NASA also said that the installation comes after the ISS crew “ingressed” the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) so as “to retrieve charcoal filters stowed within the module”.
The developments follow the Russian Federal Space Agency Roscosmos reporting an enhanced benzene level on board the ISS on 20 May, adding that it does not exceed the maximum permissible norm and does not pose any threat to the crew.
After the subsequent increase in the benzene level in the ISS's atmosphere, a device for assessing air quality was installed in the Zvezda module located in the ISS’s Russian segment which is currently manned by cosmonauts Anatoly Ivanishin and Ivan Wagner. Also on board the space outpost are their US colleagues Christopher Cassidy, Douglas Hurley, and Robert Behnken.