3D printing is a safe activity, as long as reasonable precautions are taken – for example, not touching hot 3D printer nozzles. However, there is a concern about the fumes that 3D printers give off when they print. Is it really safe to breathe in the particles being given off from the melting plastic? Some materials are more hazardous than others, but the commonly-used ABS has been found to cause potential health problems.
In 2016, a study entitled “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments” was published. The particles emitted by multiple FDM 3D printers were measured for several different materials, and the results showed that ABS and nylon were among the worst filaments in emitting high levels of styrene, a possible carcinogen.
“To provide a basis for comparison to regulatory exposure limits and to help understand potential implications for human health, we used these estimates of UFP and individual VOC emission rates to predict steady-state concentrations that would likely result from constant printer operation in a typical small well-mixed office environment,” the researchers stated. “…The predicted styrene concentration in this configuration (150 μg/m3) would be approximately 20 times higher than the highest styrene concentration measured in commercial buildings in the U.S. EPA BASE study and more than 20 times higher than the average concentration in U.S. residences. There are also reports that suggest exposure to styrene at these concentrations could be problematic for human health. For example, high indoor styrene concentrations have been estimated to yield relatively high lifetime cancer risks in previous studies that assumed typical potency factors, and even moderate styrene concentrations (i.e., greater than only 2 μg/m3) have been associated with elevated risk of pulmonary infections in infants.”
That’s worrisome information. The results of the study showed that PLA is essentially safe, but what if you have a 3D printer that prints with ABS, nylon, or multiple materials? Luckily, there are precautions you can take to minimize your exposure to these fumes, such as keeping your 3D printer in a well-ventilated area. Also, some printers are safer than others. It may not even occur to people to think of safety as a factor when shopping for a 3D printer, but it’s ultimately one of the most important factors. So how do you know your 3D printer is safe?
The easiest way to know you’re getting a safe 3D printer is to look at the safety certifications it has. For example, Zortrax 3D printers have been awarded with CE, FCC, WEE i and C-Tick certificates that confirm their safety. Zortrax’s 3D printers also come with enclosures and HEPA filters, which filter out fumes and keep them from being inhaled by people in the area. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air, and as an air filter, it has to meet certain qualifications to be able to be called a HEPA filter. For instance, it must remove 99.97% of particles with a size of as low as 0.3 μm from the air it filters.
An enclosure is always a good idea when choosing a 3D printer, and if your mind is set on a printer without one, you can always buy one of the enclosures that are sold separately. If you’re 3D printing only with PLA, there’s no need to worry; open 3D printers can be great machines that give you easier access to all the parts of your printer. But if you’re using ABS, nylon, or really any material that’s not PLA, you’re going to want to have an enclosure with a filter.
Ideally, the 3D printing industry will come up with standards for proper 3D printer filtration sooner rather than later. Until then, it’s important to do your homework when looking for a 3D printer, so that you can minimize your risks and print with peace of mind.
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