A story this weekend from CBS’ San Francisco affiliate KPIX first reported the death of Roger and Valerie Morash of Berkeley. The article claimed that a “source said that the couple was using a laser 3-D printer that was venting into their residence. Symptoms and signs consistent with carbon monoxide poisoning were found in their bodies.”
The New York Daily News quickly ran with the story, assuming a desktop 3D printer was to blame (including with a since-deleted video).
They even cited a study by the Illinois Institute of Technology, which found that when 3D printing using an FDM machine, some ultrafine particles and other volatile compounds are released with ABS and other types of filament. While the study did mention several toxins, carbon monoxide wasn’t among them.
The story has since been updated with information from another source, stating that the couple had both a desktop 3D printer and a 3D laser cutter in their home. Adding that the “couple’s laser cutter wasn’t in use.” Could it be implicated if it was?
Before we jump to any more conclusions, it should be known that an autopsy has been completed, but the report will not be published until all tests are completed. We don’t know if they died of carbon monoxide poisoning and we certainly don’t know what caused it.
Its pretty safe to assume the desktop 3D printer had nothing to do with it. As Joel Telling mentioned in his video, FDM printers don’t emit carbon monoxide:
In fact, Joel suggested that they were probably talking about the laser cutter, which could have been a desktop model like the Glowforge. Coincidentally or not, they are the only company that actually refers to their product as a “3D laser printer.”
More On Laser Cutters
Laser cutters operate by filling a tube with gas and using mirrors to reflect light through the tube. In most cases laser cutters use a gas mixture containing helium (77%), nitrogen (13.5%) and carbon dioxide (9.5%). Some laser cutters do use carbon monoxide instead, but they’re fairly rare, being used primarily for cutting glass.
Further, some CO2 lasers do also use carbon monoxide. For example, the Lumonics Lasermark IV uses a mix that includes 4% CO and 8% CO2 in addition to nitrogen and helium.
While gases are theoretically contained in the tube, there can be leakages through the walls and seals. This can degrade the laser’s performance over time, or keep it from operating at all.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is harmless (we exhale it when breathing). Carbon monoxide (CO) is hazardous and can be deadly. Acute exposure can attack the heart and central nervous system, quickly becoming fatal. Chronic exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide can cause headaches and nausea (among others). But it also has a cumulative effect and can be lethal over time.
Could carbon monoxide have escaped from the tube of the couple’s laser cutter? Possibly, but that’s not the only danger. Toxic compounds can also be released from the materials that are being cut. Plastics can release benzene and certain types of hydrocarbons. PVC can emit hydrogen chlorine and kevlar can even emit cyanide. Some types of woods can even emit poisons.
Without the autopsy, it’s too early to say what ultimately caused the death of the Morash couple. The media is certainly receiving backlash for speculation and potentially, shoddy journalism. Both the New York Daily News and Berkeleyside.com have “edited” their stories to downplay the impact of the 3D printer and laser cutter.
But even if it turns out that neither device was responsible for their deaths, this story does bring up the question of safety with these devices.
Classification and Regulation
In the workplace, the classification and use of lasers is regulated by CDRH, a division of the US FDA. At the low end, Class 1 devices are considered non hazardous and include things like laser printers and DVD players. At the high end, Class 4 devices can cause immediate skin and eye hazards from exposure to either the direct or reflected beam, and may also present a fire hazard.
The Glowforge Basic is a Class 1 device. According to the company’s FAQ however, “the passthrough slot makes the Pro model a Class IV laser, which does require additional precautions like glasses and warning signs.”
Actually it requires a bit more than that. In a commercial setting, a Class 4 laser can be subject to a long list of control measures and safety programs.
In its FAQ, Glowforge does mention the regulations regarding commercial use. But then adds this:
“The guidelines for safe use outside of a workplace are less clear. Safety glasses and warning signs are definitely required. Because of variations in laws and regulations, and the very high stakes, our attorney’s [sic] asked us not to give out one-size-fits-all safety advice.
I wish we could be more specific with advice – but we can’t, which is why we’re encouraging people to get the less-expensive basic model if they’re uncertain.”
Materials have their own regulations, and as mentioned above, when subjected to the high heat of a laser, can be toxic. Before a material is cut, most manufacturers recommend a thorough review of the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS).
According to the company, Glowforge “can cut wood, fabric, leather, paper, Plexiglas (acrylic), Delrin (acetal), mylar, rubber, fiberglass, Corian, foods, and more. Glowforge can also engrave all of the above plus glass, coated metal, marble, anodized aluminum, titanium, and more.”
While Glowforge does offer its own brand of materials, it can also work with supplies from other vendors. In the FAQ, Glowforge notes that,
“…you can find a huge number of reliable suppliers of hardwoods, acrylics, paper, cardboard, and more both locally and online. Some plywoods can have glues that make them difficult to cut, and unknown plastics and other materials can be something other than they appear, so if you buy from other suppliers you’ll need to do some research first to make sure they are laser-compatible. A Glowforge is like a microwave – putting the wrong material in can damage it.”
Good to know. But what I didn’t see on the FAQ was much information about material safety and how it could impact things living in the environment where the device is being used.
The company does offer a forum for its users and crowdfunding campaign backers. There has been a lot of discussion there about what you should or should not print.
For the record, I’m not suggesting that a Glowforge was in any way responsible for the Morashes’ deaths. We don’t even know for certain that it was carbon monoxide poisoning, much less whether the 3D printer or laser cutter played a role. We don’t even know if they owned a Glowforge.
But here’s what I am saying. The Glowforge and other devices like it are being targeted specifically at consumers. In fact, one of the questions in the FAQ is, “can my child use a Glowforge?” The answer is yes. “Your Glowforge is an ideal tool for fostering creativity and design at a young age. There’s nothing more rewarding than making toys instead of buying them.” They do add that, “Adult supervision is required for those under age 18.”
Not only does that make it seem appropriate for home use, but also for makes it seem ideal for an educational environment. There’s a lot of interest in promoting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to next-generation students. Digital manufacturing technologies can be a great way for kids to learn, applying lessons from those areas of study.
But the industry is immature and much of the work that’s gone into creating these devices has been done by startups. Some don’t have prior experience working with consumer electronics. Until recently, very few desktop 3D printers were even UL or CE approved. Off-the-shelf components like power supplies and motors were typically conforming, but the devices themselves were untested.
Safety In The Next Industrial Revolution
The first two industrial revolutions didn’t happen without casualties. Lots of people got hurt or lost their lives working in unsafe conditions. Here in America, we didn’t really start working on the problem until the middle of the 19th century. In fact, it wasn’t until 1870 that the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor first urged legislation to deal with “the peril to health from lack of ventilation.” Nationally, it took even longer. The Occupational Safety and Health Act (creating OSHA) wasn’t passed until 1970.
One of the big goals of desktop 3D printing is to “democratize manufacturing.” As production migrates closer to the user, we need to keep user safety in mind. There are many aspects, including electrical, mechanical and air quality concerns. Whether a company is a startup or an established player, these factors must be considered and adequate testing must be performed.
Otherwise, it’s possible that safety could become a big issue for the teachers, parents and children who will power the “Next Industrial Revolution.”
[Creative commons “Laser Cutter” is copyright (c) 2012 by Sparkfun Electronics]
Editor’s notes: The cause of death in this case remains officially undetermined. The building the couple lived in was tested for contaminants including carbon monoxide, but no traces were found.
We saw the Glowforge in action at CES earlier this month; the Glowforge team noted that ventilation is of the utmost importance during operation, and their setup on-site took longer due to difficulties with their air filtration system in shipping to Las Vegas. They would not use the machine without proper ventilation protocols in place, and neither should any other user.
Death by desktop 3D printer is highly unlikely, and 3DPrint.com sends our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Valerie and Roger Morash. A GoFundMe has been set up for their funeral and other expenses; excess funds will be contributed to an Memorial MIT Fund being created in their names.
John Hauer is the Founder and CEO of Get3DSmart, a consulting practice which helps large companies understand and capitalize on opportunities with 3D printing. Prior to that, John co-founded and served as the CEO of 3DLT. The company worked with retailers and their suppliers, helping them sell 3D printable products, online and in-store.
John’s original content has been featured on TechCrunch, QZ.com, Techfaster.com, 3DPrint.com and Inside3DP.com, among others. Follow him on Twitter at @Get3DJohn