Many forward-looking designers and makers have been enthusiastic about 3D printing. After all, it seems to open up new creative possibilities and could democratize design. But if you're not careful, using a 3D printer might not be so good for your health, according to a new study investigating the health effects of 3D printing and certain filament materials.
The study, one of the first of its kind, was conducted by the Illinois Institute of Technology and published in Environmental Science & Technology, looked into the level of ultra-fine particles (particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter) emitted by five brands of 3D printers, as well as the level of toxic volatile organic compounds that are emitted when printing materials are heated. The team explains that few printers and "even fewer" materials have been tested so far for their potential health impacts on humans. Study co-author Brent Stephens of the Illinois Institute of Technology tells Co.Design that:
We were prompted to study this back in 2013 when a student in my class was curious about odours emanating from 3D printers operating in his office.
So we first conducted a pilot study of ultrafine particle emissions from just one type of printer with only two types of filaments, and then once we realized that those could be quite high, we figured that they were also emitting gas-phase pollutants as well.
The experiment tested five printer brands: the FlashForge Creator, Dremel 3D Idea Builder, XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0, MakerBot Replicator 2X, and LulzBot Mini. The team printed a sample product that took between two to four hours to print, within the confines of an airtight room, using various instruments to gauge the level of particle and VOC emissions that gradually built up inside. Over a dozen materials were tested, including ABS, PLA, wood and clear polycarbonate.
The researchers found that overall, the printing process done in a closed space resulted in levels of particle emissions up to ten times than that of an ordinary office or lab. Certain materials emitted carcinogenic toxins, while others put out less harmful byproducts -- and the hazards mostly come from the materials themselves rather than the printers.
The takeaway? In lieu of the industry developing less toxic materials to print with and printers with airtight casings or safer designs in the future, the team suggests that "caution should be used when operating many printer and filament combinations in enclosed or poorly ventilated spaces or without the aid of gas and particle filtration systems."