Health study reveals harmful "toxic" effects of 3D printing


A team of scientists has published a study that details the health hazards of 3D printing in enclosed spaces, which it says causes the release of toxic and carcinogenic particles.

The study – conducted by a group of scientists at the Illinois Institute of Technology – tested five major brands of 3D printers including the Makerbot Replicator 2X and LulzBot Mini.

The researchers were looking for two things: the level of ultra-fine particles emitted by the printers, and the level of dangerous volatile organic compounds emitted from heating plastic.

The results show that typical desktop 3D printers emit particles and compounds during printing that federal agencies say could cause cancer or other ailments.

"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," Brent Stephens told Co.Design.

"A good chunk of printers and filaments that are out there we really should be worried about," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I think the way people are introducing these into schools and libraries, that's what should drive some of the concern."

The problem – according to Stephens – is that the ultra-fine particles emitted by the printers often aren't regulated.

The report outlines the rapid increase in popularity of 3D printers, and notes that the emission of gases and particles during the process is well known.

3D printing health effects study by Illinois Institute of Technology
The team printed a standardised file from the National Institute of Standards and Technology

However – according to the team – little is known about the types and magnitudes of emissions from 3D printers, or how they vary according to filament material or printer characteristics.

"We first conducted a pilot study of ultra-fine particle emissions from just one type of printer with only two types of filaments, and then once we realised that those could be quite high, we figured that they were also emitting gas-phase pollutants as well," said Stephens.

For all tests but one, the team printed a standardised file from the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The file had a range of features that were thought to potentially influence printer emissions, including a combination of solid volumes, thin protrusions, holes and indentations.

Each of the five printers tested, including FlashForge Creator, Dremel 3D Idea Builder, XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0, MakerBot Replicator 2X, and LulzBot Mini, spent between two and four hours printing out the sample object.

A particle counter tallied the number of ultra-fine particles pumped into the airtight room, while also sampling air quality. More than a dozen materials ranging from ABS plastic – the same material used to create lego blocks – to clear polycarbonate were tested.

The results showed that the level of harmful particles and fumes depended mostly on the filament material, not the make of printer.

ABS emitted styrene – a chemical that is both toxic and carcinogenic. Other materials based on nylon gave off caprolactam particles, which are linked with other non-life threatening health problems. The PLA filament emitted a benign chemical named lactide.

Many companies are already looking into non-toxic printing materials for consumers, but until then, the paper's authors write: "we continue to suggest 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."

  • mvelentzas

    I think you need to place a little bit more emphasis on the distinctions that the study makes between materials, since PLA is arguably the most commonly used filament in the type of desktop 3D printing being addressed.

    And the study clearly states that: “We are not aware of any relevant information regarding the inhalation toxicity of lactide, the primary individual VOC emitted from PLA filaments”.

  • Doubtful Dodger

    It is also dangerous to stand in a garage with a vehicle’s engine running. Common sense opens the garage door and common sense will lead to people using 3D printers in ventilated spaces, if they aren’t doing so already.

  • H-J

    Who would have thought that melting plastic would be bad for your health?

  • some1s_lucky

    I think one of the issues is that most printers printing ABS need the enclosed space (box) to contain the ambient heat build up to ensure de-lamination doesn’t occur.

    Once the print is finished you open the box and out come the harmful contaminants. You could say this exposes the user to an intense localised contamination. No doubt it is only a matter of time before small chemical HEPA filters are an additional requirement much the same as laser cutters etc.

  • Mike

    I’m not entirely sure how most people interact with their printed materials, but I print several small items a week up to 15cm tall. Once they are finished printing, I must remove the support material using a power washer and finish off by sanding or buffing the item.

    This doesn’t typically cause a lot of dust, but every now and then I find myself covered in fine particles. I also tend to blow the sanded material off, like sawdust. It only recently occurred to me that breathing this in might be dangerous.

  • Jacobinism

    Basically we are watching a division of humans. Survival of the smartest. Wood house vs plastic. Which one would you like to breath in? New car smell = TOXIC.

  • I think the concept behind the article is a good one. I think like with the mobile phone it is a question of waiting to see what the effects of printing might have health wise.

    In fact this topic really does interest me, so much so that I was pretty surprised not to find much out there on how to ventilate any potentially harmful fumes (better safe than sorry, right?). I know there are some enclosures out there, but there does not seem to be that many, or am I wrong?