Multi-year research conducted by Georgia Institute of Technology and UL Chemical Safety suggests low-cost 3D-printing devices could pose a health risk by harming indoor air quality.
Publishing their work in two separate studies in Aerosol Science and Technology, one in 2017 and another in 2018, the researchers tested how 3D printers emitted particles when in a controlled environment. They found that as a byproduct, 3D printers generate a range of different-sized particles, including ultrafine particles, which can be inhaled into the pulmonary system, resulting in adverse effects on respiratory health.
“These printers tend to produce particles that are very small, especially at the beginning of the print process, and in an environment without good ventilation, they could significantly reduce indoor air quality,” said lead researcher Rodney Weber in a statement.
Specifically, more than 200 different volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released when 3D printers are working, many of which are suspected or known to be irritants and carcinogenic.
3D printers work by taking a digital blueprint of an object and printing it layer-by-layer using a computer-aided design software. While 3D printers use a variety of different technologies and methods, they typically “print” objects by melting metals and plastics materials which then hardens into place once it’s been left at room temperature. Certain factors had a bigger impact, such as nozzle temperature, the type, and color of material being used, as well as the brands being used.
“We found that one of the overriding principles is the temperature of the filament,” said Weber. “If you use a filament that requires a higher temperature to melt, such as ABS plastic, you produce more particles than PLA plastic filaments, which require lower temperatures.”
The researchers say 3D printers should require a risk assessment as they become more common both in the home and commercial space and take into consideration certain factors that might make a person more sensitive, including respiratory or other health issues.
“Following our series of studies – the most extensive to date on 3D printer emissions – we are recommending additional investments in scientific research, product advancement to minimize emissions, and increased user awareness so that safety measures can be taken,” said Marilyn Black, vice president and senior technical advisor at UL.
The researchers recommend a few steps you can take at home to lessen the impact on air quality when using 3D printers, including operating them only in well-ventilated areas, setting the nozzle temperature on the lowest suggested setting, keeping a distance from operating machines, and using materials and machines that have been tested and shown to have low emissions.