UL Study Releases Data on Effects of 3D Printing on Human Health, Calls for New Standards

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3D printing is a new enough technology that there’s still plenty of debate about how safe it is, on a number of levels. While some fears may be over-exaggerated, there’s still reason for legitimate concern, particularly in regards to factors such as 3D printer emissions. It’s a known issue that 3D printers can give off some not-so-healthy chemicals and particles while printing, which is why many printer manufacturers are adding protective features such as enclosures and filters. But a study led by safety science company Underwriters Laboratories (UL) concludes that broader measures need to be taken, in the form of new safety standards.

The two-year study was conducted by multiple organizations including UL’s Chemical Research Initiative, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. Back in December 2015, Dr. Marilyn Black, Vice President and Senior Technical Advisor, Underwriters Laboratories, Inc., told about the background, testing parameters, and goals of the study in an exclusive interview.

“The research will benefit all manufacturers and stakeholders in the 3D printing industry. Although initial research is focused on consumer/desktop printing, the information gained, test methodologies and human risk evaluations will benefit all. Manufacturers can obtain knowledge to develop processes, materials, and 3D printer designs that mitigate potential human health risks; policy makers and users can develop data for evaluation and sound decisions,” Dr. Black told us.

The study assessed desktop 3D printer emissions and concluded that 3D printers can be a source of ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds. The results were presented at a two-day conference called the Summit on the Safety Science of 3D Printing, which took place in February 2017 and have recently been made available online.

“Three dimensional or 3D printers have gained momentum in the marketplace for rapid prototyping and manufacturing especially in consumer, industrial, educational, healthcare, and military environments. While there are traditional electrical and physical safety hazard considerations for the application and use of 3D printers and additive manufacturing processes, this technology also presents a human health concern from the potential release of volatile chemicals and particles into the air during operation. These pollutant releases may affect the indoor air and expose people to unexpected pollutants leading to adverse acute and chronic health concerns. Few scientific studies have been done to characterize and evaluate this potential health risk and to develop management strategies for consumer and occupational environments,” Dr. Black says in the published study’s welcome.

The study’s findings showed that PLA and ABS filaments both produced similar levels of ultrafine particles, though ABS does tend to produce more. About 50 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were identified, with a few of the most significant being styrene, caprolactam, and lactide. Emissions often tended to vary by color as well as material type, and while no one involved in the study is screaming that our 3D printers are poisoning us to death, there is reason for concern and further study.

From the study: VOC Emissions from FDM Desktop 3D Printers, from speaker Aika Davis, Ph.D., Underwriters Laboratories Inc.

“Exposure to the emissions from printing with ABS filament have shown increased mean arterial pressure, increased arteriolar tone, and decreased endothelium-dependent arteriolar dilation in mice,” the study states in a section entitled “Chemical Emissions from a Desktop 3D Printer,” from Dr. Aleksandr Stefaniak (and presented by Alyson Johnson), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Just how dangerous these particles and compounds are to humans remains a topic for further research, and the consortium will continue to study toxicity and emissions information on a variety of filament types. UL, in the meantime, will proceed with the development of American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standards.

“Based on research results and safety concern over these emissions, stakeholders agreed to move forward with UL taking a lead role to develop an ANSI standard for measuring and assessing printer emissions for safe use in indoor spaces,” said Dr. Black.

You can read the full summary of the Safety Summit’s findings here. While each individual study’s methodologies and findings varied, each drew consistent conclusions that we do have reason to be concerned about the emissions our 3D printers are giving off – but not to panic. Many of the suggestions for improving 3D printer safety are measures that are already being taken by manufacturers and users: adequate ventilation, for example, and printer enclosures. Adopting official safety standards to minimize the emissions given off by 3D printers is a wise idea, as well, to ensure that manufacturers are taking as many steps as possible to safeguard the health of their customers.

“The Summit’s goals were to enable key stakeholders to have an open, honest, and respectful dialogue on 3D printing and its potential health impacts,” said Dr. Black in her introduction to the report. “In a collaborative environment, we shared science, reviewed research data and agreed on a path forward to develop a standardized method for measuring and assessing the emissions released during printing. This will allow for consistent and comparative data to be obtained from laboratories, machine manufacturers, and suppliers of filaments. UL standards will initiate the development of an ANSI consensus standard and will make a call for third party participants. In addition, research will be continued to gather more toxicity information and additional emissions data on a range of filament types.”

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