How Toxic Are the Fumes Released by 3D Printers?

December 07, 2015| Von Charlie Kingdollar | Commercial Umbrella, General Liability, Personal Umbrella | English | Japanese

Mention 3D printing to most people and they think of desktop machines making small plastic items. They wouldn’t necessarily equate such equipment with what are essentially light industrial processes that could have significant occupational health impacts. With sales expected to grow almost four-fold by 2019, as my colleague Renate Kerpen notes in her October post, any health implications take on greater significance.

But at least one study has found that 3D printers release nano-sized particles into the air from the print material being used. Another early study found that the use of certain plastics in 3D printers released gases including ammonia, cyanidric acid, phenol and benzene, among others.

Now a new study of the ABS and PLA plastics commonly used by 3D printers has confirmed some of the previous findings, namely that the process does release nanoparticles as well as other toxins into the air.

The latest study (by Dr. Fabrizio Merlo and Dr. Eng. Stefano Mazzoni, further revealed big differences in the emissions of the two different plastics.

  • The lab tests showed that petroleum-based ABS is significantly more toxic than PLA, a corn-based polymer. But PLA is not exempt from dangerous emissions, especially if extruded at temperatures higher than 200°C.
  • Emissions of nanoparticle 5 (particles with a diameter smaller than .1 micron or 100 nanometers) when using ABS varied from 3 to 30 times those that occur when using PLA filament. Nano particles can be absorbed directly by the pulmonary alveolus and the epidermis.

Among the effects that the absorption of toxic VOCs (volatile organic carbon) and nanoparticles can cause to humans, the most common are pulmonary pathologies, such as bronchitis, tracheitis and asthma. In some cases, these substances can also cause certain types of cancers.

It seems clear that the potential health risk associated with operating 3D printers is significant and that ventilation could make a big difference; the Merlo and Mazzoni study also showed that the time needed for the nanoparticle concentration in the air to go back to standard levels was between 10 and 30 minutes after the extrusion processes stopped.

The researchers suggest use of air ventilation systems capable of moving three times the room’s volume of air in one hour. This means that a room measuring 100 cubic meters should have a system capable of displacing 300 cubic meters of air in one hour.

That might seem like practical advice for businesses using 3D printers in industrial or large commercial settings. But remember that many schools, libraries, small print shops and homes also now have 3D printers. It's very likely that few have powerful air ventilation systems in place - or any other protections for that matter.

Studies have already shown that inhaling nanomaterials can cause serious lung disease and have harmful effects on other organs - including crossing the blood brain barrier. So while 3D printing clearly promises great economic benefits, it’s clearly time to get to grips with the possible hazards the new technology presents.


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