Low cost desktop 3D printers are becoming more and more accessible to the general public, finding a place in offices and hobbyists' homes as well as professional workshops. But recent research has revealed that some commercial desktop printers may pose a health risk because of their emission of ultra-fine particles or UFPs.
3D Printing image via Shutterstock
Most consumer level 3D printers work by feeding solid plastic filament through a heated nozzle, depositing material in layers in a process called 'fused deposition modelling' or FDM. The two main types of plastics that are used in 3D printing are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). ABS is the sturdier of the two, whereas PLA is a more flexible, plant-based material.
Printers using both types of materials have been shown to emit high levels of nano-sized ultrafine particles, however, which could potentially be harmful to your health. The study measured UFP emissions from two printers using PLA filament and two identical printers using ABS filament in an enclosed office environment, with both groups turning up high emission rates of up to 200 billion particles per minute for ABS and up to 20 billion for PLA.
What does this mean for 3D printing hobbyists? UFP emissions also come from other domestic sources, such as cooking with an electric frying pan or grilling on a gas or electric stove, and professionals are unsure just how much damage they can do. While the risk to health from UFP exposure is still unclear, it has been linked to negative health effects such as asthma, stroke and heart and lung diseases. Some studies have also shown that UFPs might constitute a larger part of the toxicity of melting plastics than originally thought.
The study also highlights the fact that the chemical makeup of the UFPs might be more important for your safety than the amount you have been exposed to, with ABS registering higher toxicity than the safer, plant-based PLA. However in this study the chemical composition of the UFPs detected was not specified, which has been identified as a limitation of the report.
While this study doesn't mean you should be throwing your printer out the window immediately, it does suggest that you should potentially use it near a window, or somewhere with good ventilation. Avoid setting up desktop printers in your immediate living or working area without adequate ventilation, and consider getting a filtered respirator if you are concerned about the toxicity of the materials you're using to print.