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Is 3D Printing Hazardous for Your Health? Researchers from University of Texas Weigh In

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Large_university-of-texas_seal_rgb(199-91-18)It seems nothing is without hazard, and especially in technology. As soon as something new and amazing hits the mainstream and is placed into the hands of innocent consumers, instructed to purchase and enjoy, we are then shamed for loving them (just can’t put that phone down for a second, eh?) and pummeled with a list of ways they will soon cause us to die. Cell phones will give you brain cancer just to the left of your ear, holding your tablet while playing Words with Friends endlessly will consume your hands and limbs with carpal tunnel, expensive ergonomics are required in your office—and well, let’s not even get started on that old fashioned boob tube.

So 3D printing didn’t even have much of a chance before the railing began regarding fumes and toxicity and in general, the question of how sick we might be getting while the filament takes its time melting nearby. But keep reading before you decide to toss your pricey new printer out that workshop window. According to research being performed in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, it would seem that moderation is the key for the making community, and panic is certainly not in order.

A recent paper, ‘Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,’ by Parham Azimi, Dan Zhao, Claire Pouzet, Neil E. Crain, and Brent Stephens, was just published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal. In this paper, the authors establish that while there are some concerns, no one is in danger of erupting into alien-like pustules. Not just yet. This was uncovered as researchers focused mainly on fumes and ultra-fine particles (UFPs) which can be dangerous during something like 3D printing, even if the materials themselves are not.

UntitledIf you are obsessively 3D printing night and day, or have been appointed to stand guard over a printer, in close proximity all the time, this could be cause for concern, and it all depends on what you are doing at the 3D printer as well.

While you aren’t at any greater or lower risk regarding the model of 3D printing you are running, it would not seem that you need researchers to tell you that breathing in fumes for several hours could be a hazard to your health. But they are indeed telling you so! And that’s especially relevant if you are using ABS or a similar 3D printing filament.

“Results from a screening analysis of potential exposure to these products in a typical small office environment suggest caution should be used when operating many of the printer and filament combinations in poorly ventilated spaces or without the aid of combined gas and particle filtration systems,” state the researchers in their paper.

Questioning the seriousness of particle emissions in 3D printing, and in numerous scenarios, the researchers wanted to advance beyond previous studies and provide a more comprehensive approach.

“…important gaps in our knowledge of emissions from 3D printers still remain. Only a very limited number of makes and models of printers have been tested to date, and even fewer filament materials have been characterized for gas and/or particle emissions (i.e., only ABS and PLA),” state the researchers. “We also have no information to date on how the design or shape of printed materials, or printer characteristics such as the presence of enclosures, may influence gas and/or particle emissions.”

UntitledAs they worked to assess the basic dangers in inhaling filament fumes, the researchers stated that indeed there are concerns involved, as ABS (and one HIPS filament) emit styrene in fairly large amounts. This is an issue, obviously, as styrene is considered to be a carcinogen. Not the only emission to worry about, the researchers also state that Caprolactam is found in fumes via nylon, PCTPE, laybrick, and laywood.

Caprolactam was also emitted in large amounts by four of the filaments: nylon, PCTPE, laybrick, and laywood. Although caprolactam is classified as probably not carcinogenic to humans, continued exposure would seem to be questionable.

The report seems to offer up fairly common sense information, although they do state that more studies should be done regarding exposure to fumes and potential carcinogens, and should be weighed against usage patterns while 3D printing. The researchers also do actually go so far as to recommend that companies manufacturing 3D printers should ‘work toward designing low-emitting filament materials and/or printing technologies’ as well as working ‘to evaluate the effectiveness of sealed enclosures on both UFP and VOC emissions or to introduce combined gas and particle filtration systems.’

It’s somewhat of a relief to hear that none of these findings were monumentally different from what most everyone probably expected, although this would seem to suggest that you should lean toward PLA whenever possible, as well as considering ventilation alternatives and enclosures and vents for the 3D printer if possible. Have you previously been worried about any of the issues discussed here? Discuss in the 3D Printing Emissions Danger forum over at 3DPB.com.

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