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Summary:

Ultrafine particles are emitted by laser printers, radiators, cigarettes and many other household items. Should we be worried about breathing in more from a 3D printer?

A monster created by the MakerBot

Most consumer 3D printers are designed to be portable and open, meaning the user can plunk one down on their desk and reach right in to the printing platform. While this encourages maximum accessibility, it also has a dark side: Tiny particles can escape into the air and be inhaled by humans.

Researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology and National Institute of Applied Sciences in Lyon, France, published a study this month that found commercially available 3D printers release a high amount of ultrafine particles. UFPs are particles less than 100 nanometers across that can be natural or manmade. UFPs are especially good at working their way into the airways and lungs, where they can be absorbed into the blood stream and cause health problems like lung disease, strokes and asthma over time.

Should 3D printer users be worried? Yes and no.

It’s not a good idea to sit hunched over a 3D printer in a stuffy room all day. UFPs are small enough to slip through a surgical mask, so avoiding them takes more advanced equipment. It also takes several hours for UFPs to disperse, making it impractical to just wait to retrieve a print job.

It’s also true that we already expose ourselves to UFPs everyday. In the study, the researchers found that printing with PLA — a softer plastic made from corn — is equivalent to cooking with an electric frying pan. Printing with ABS — a harder plastic made from chemicals and printed at a higher temperature — releases significantly more UFPs, similar to grilling food on a stove at a low power setting.

Grill something at a high power setting, and you will release a much higher amount of particles. UFPs are also released by laser printers, radiators, cigarettes, candles and many other household items. They aren’t going to kill us immediately, but they’re also not good for us. Adding another emitter in the form of a 3D printer isn’t ideal.

Industrial 3D printers have systems in place to remove emissions. It would be nice to see UFP-capturing systems integrated into consumer printers as well. The researchers said they were not able to determine the composition of the particles and suggested further study, which could help inform new 3D printer designs or even new types of UFP-free plastic. For now, they recommend using 3D printers in a well ventilated area.

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  1. Julie Lofton Friedman Steele Wednesday, July 24, 2013

    UFP’s from a stove are far different than the UFP’s from Petroleum based plastic. Unless of course you are melting petroleum based plastic on your stove.

  2. Brent Polishak Wednesday, July 24, 2013

    There’s also a huge difference between Ultrafine particles of PLA and ABS. They are completely different at their molecular structure level. At least PLA, in general, is biodegradable and biocompatible whereas ABS is incredibly the opposite in addition to being non-recyclable. PLA isn’t easily recycled either, but it can be composted industrially at least.

    The 3D printing market is kinda booming at the consumer level and there isn’t long-term exposure data about these things. Sure ABS has been in the home for years, but people haven’t been heating and melting it in the home.

  3. Besides containing UFPs, cigarette smoke has a lot of other toxic chemicals. It seems unfair and biased to even compare the emissions of a 3d printer to that of cigarette smoke. Very irresponsible on the part of the writer. Sigh…

  4. Hmmm…so, isn’t this just another case of “get the product out there, reap the profits, then answer all the doubts, fears, and other ramifications associated with little or no fore-thought about potential health-effects”?

    How many other similar scenarios can we list, I wonder? Haven’t we all seen the ads on TV from all the attorneys out there? “Call 1-800-BAD DRUG”, etc.

    We seem to be blatantly allowing anyone to put products on the market that have never been thought through or researched for possible health or environmental risks. Is this the way a “free enterprise system” is supposed to operate? Isn’t this a bit like the old “snake-oil” scenario, where seedy, malicious, and otherwise unscrupulous and greedy profiteers exploited the ignorance of the masses with their wares? Didn’t we put a stop to that kind of practice a long time ago? Wonder what’s happened?
    I’m just sayin’…

    1. Sarah Bear Wallin Charlie Thursday, July 25, 2013

      It is a bit unreasonable to delay a product for a generation or two to prove long term effects. Toxicity is also very relative. Everything is potentially toxic. Oxygen is extremely toxic and will eventually kill you.

      The reality is that to approve a product, due diligence is observed, and a decision is made based on our lifespan – is it statistically plausible that this will make 1 out of n people sick within their lifespan?

      Despite our best efforts, mortality rate is still holding steady at 100%

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