Are We Poisoning Ourselves & the Planet with 3D Printing? More Research Emerges from RMIT University

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RMIT_POS_2COLWe live in a world where most of our products seem to be heavily regulated by government entities mandating plentiful labels with tiny words that go unread, dire warnings regarding impending doom, and a host of safety standards that seem to inconvenience many companies. Now, if we don’t see or read anything on a box or have a big orange toxicity sticker practically stamped onto our foreheads, we assume everything is fine–until someone comes along with one of those scientific reports that just might burst the bubble, harsh the mellow, and ruin a lot of the fun we were having (while unknowingly poisoning ourselves too).

If you’ve had your head in the 3D printer nonstop and missed all the hoopla regarding the dangers of toxins from filaments, resins, and metals lately, it might be time to do some reading, fling open all the windows and start the fans, and also begin designing yourself a stylish safety mask. More than one report has come along of late, and with it—a flurry from manufacturers eager to respond about the safety of their products, which is indeed nice for them if they are producing PLA filament. For the others? It may be smart to begin assessing ABS and resins, as well as educating everyone about the best ways to print with metal.


Are emissions from melting 3D printing filament hazardous to your health?

A recently published study from University of Texas researchers offered up some vaguely frightening information regarding emissions and toxicity, while letting PLA filament off the hook for the most part. And while most of this research seems to throw out slightly threatening findings which are then followed with the comment that everything needs more study, all signs seem to point to filaments like your standard ABS as being not particularly good for your health—mainly via the emission of styrene, a known carcinogen.

We’ve also been following other research, such as that from the UL Additive Manufacturing Competency Center at the University of Louisville regarding safety measures that should be taken in 3D printing with metal, and in larger facilities especially. No, you don’t want tiny shards of metal flying into your eyes or into open wounds—and there is plenty more that needs to be considered where that comes from.

We’re now also taking a look at another study from researchers at RMIT University in Australia which has been released in different publications, like the Lab-on-a-Chip and Biomicrofluidics journals.

In ‘Assessment of the biocompatibility of three-dimensional-printed polymers using multispecies toxicity tests’ by  Feng Zhu, Timo Friedrich, Dayanthi Nugegoda, Jan Kaslin and Donald Wlodkowic, the angle they approach the subject from is interesting in that they point out how helpful so much new technology is in terms of breakthroughs—especially 3D printing—but that toxicity must be explored.

“A recent revolution in additive manufacturing technologies and access to 3D Computer Assisted Design (CAD) software has spurred an explosive growth of new technologies in biomedical engineering. This includes biomodels for diagnosis, surgical training, hard and soft tissue replacement, biodevices and tissue engineering. Moreover, recent developments in high-definition additive manufacturing systems such as Multi-Jet Modelling (MJM) and Stereolithography (SLA), capable of reproducing feature sizes close to 100 μm, promise brand new capabilities in fabrication of optical-grade biomicrofluidic Lab-on-a-Chip and MEMS devices,” state the researchers.

NewsImage_45179They go on to emphasize that in their research they began by evaluating how toxic polymers are in most all basic types of 3D printing systems, and that exploration of safety regarding fumes and more is important as the technology becomes so mainstream—and indeed is now a billion-dollar industry.

Part of their concern regarding safety is how some of these toxins in plastic break down when exposed to water.

“Critical biocompatibility issues and potential hazard risk implications of widespread usage of 3D printed polymers have so far received only marginal attention. We used both cell-based assays as well as whole-organism biotests to screen for risks of exposure to 3D printed parts as well as potential leachates of toxic molecules from 3D printed plastics,” said Donald Wlodkowic, Associate Professor, RMIT. “This process highlighted the toxicity of 3D printed polymer and allowed us to establish a predictive analytical workflow to rapidly determine the toxicology of a burgeoning number of polymers used in 3D printing. We have already found one very toxic substance that has recently been reported as leaching from plastic ampoules used for intravenous injections.”


“Based on our pilot studies, we garnered evidence that many of the polymerized resins used are unsafe. This data warrants development of a larger study to perform comprehensive exploration at genomic, cellular, and organismal levels.”

They also highlight issues regarding allergies, contact with skin, and another topic, which is a conversation in itself—environmental impact.

“We live in an era of explosive growth of 3D printing industry. It is estimated that by the end of 2019 we will achieve more than 5.6 million shipments of 3D printing technologies globally,” he said.”This will translate to large volumes of 3D printed waste materials that need to be safely disposed.”

The question of waste is often a topic within the 3D printing community, and while many different efforts to recycle and re-use plastics are in place, certainly there are many thousands of pounds of plastic going into the trash. Here, again, PLA 3D printing filament does play more the role of the hero as it is vegetable-based, not harmful in regards to fumes, and it can be composted in your own backyard.

Again, while there are some frightening aspects to the research, they also state, predictably, that it’s difficult to attach definite risks. They are obviously working to pinpoint hazards further, and it would seem that they, along with others, would like to see more cautionary regulations, as well as more pressure put on manufacturers–many of whom may not appreciate the task. It’s probably safe to assume that in the near future, you will begin to read warnings on 3D printing equipment and materials packaging, as well as continuing to practice common sense with ventilation and moderation in exposure. What are your thoughts? Discuss in the 3D Printing Toxicity forum over at 3DPB.com.

[Source: AZO Materials]


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