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.