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3D printers emit ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds, some of which are known irritants, carcinogens, and odorants. As the devices multiply in classrooms and homes, it's imperative that users understand how to mitigate those potential health hazards.

Clare Goldsberry

August 14, 2020

3 Min Read
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Image: Kokotewan/Adobe Stock

Mold makers have long been cautioned about machining beryllium copper, a material often used in core and cavity manufacturing, because of copper’s ability to transfer heat quickly. The fine beryllium dust from the machining process can cause a chronic lung condition known as berylliosis. Machinists working with beryllium copper wear N95 masks to keep from breathing in these fine particles.

Since 3D printers have become smaller and more affordable, they have also become more ubiquitous, especially in school classrooms and with younger users. Consequently, they are often thought of as “toys,” as they can be used to make playthings and other fun projects. However, 3D printers are actually manufacturing equipment that should be treated like a machine tool.

Research findings by Chemical Insights, an institute of Underwriters Laboratories, and Georgia Institute of Technology, show that desktop 3D printers emit ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which are known irritants, carcinogens, and odorants. Exposure may present a human health hazard, especially when standing next to a 3D printer with minimal ventilation, according to findings from Chemical Insights’ research.

Chemical Insights has created a 3D-printing toolkit, which is included in the US Department of Education’s Green Strides online resource portal and is available to schools nationwide. 3D Printer School Safety: A Guide for Supporting Indoor Air Quality & Human Health is the result of research performed by Chemical Insights dedicated to advancing safe and healthy working, learning, and living environments.

The guide explains how 3D printers emit UFPs and VOCs during operation and walks readers through research processes, key findings, and unintended consequences on human health. Further, it suggests purchasing and operations strategies teachers and parents can implement to mitigate chemical exposure as well as maintain safe and healthy indoor environments while using the technology.

The use of 3D printers at home and in classrooms “has skyrocketed because the technology inspires hands-on creativity and problem-solving by bringing a wide range of student ideas to life,” said Dr. Marilyn Black, Vice President and Senior Technical Advisor for Chemical Insights. “However, those using 3D printers should know the unintended safety consequences and how best to mitigate those risks. Our informational guide will help administrators, teachers, and parents better understand how to safely use 3D printers.”

Desktop 3D printers are often used by companies in engineering laboratories, which also can be problematic. Chemical Insights offers the following recommendations:

  • Avoid standing near a printer or hovering over it while it is in operation;

  • set the nozzle temperature at the lower end of the suggested temperature range while maintaining print quality;

  • buy printers and print media that have been tested and certified to produce low emissions;

  • use filaments or print media specifically recommended for the printer by the manufacturer.

VOC emission compositions and total VOC emissions depend on the type of material being used: ABS filaments were found to emit more than 175 different VOCs; nylon filaments emit a range of different low-level VOCs; and PLA has a lower emission rate but was still found to produce more than 50 identified VOCs.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests additional measures users should take when operating a 3D printer. They include:

  • installing high-efficiency HEPA filters near printers;

  • using ventilated enclosures;

  • placing the printer under a fume hood or near a vent that exhausts to the outside (similar to what machine/mold shops do in their graphite milling departments);

  • using PPE such as safety glasses, face shields, lab coats or overalls and even considering the use of respiratory protection equipment, when appropriate.

An article written by Mark Wilson in Fast Company in November 2018 that addressed this topic quoted Georgia Tech professor Dr. Rodney Weber, who participated in a “landmark study” on the emissions of 3D printers. “To be honest, I wouldn’t be too concerned as long as you have good ventilation,” said Weber. “That’s what it comes down to. If you have a bunch of printers in one room like a classroom, you walk in and can smell plastic, then I’d be concerned about it.”

The Chemical Insights 3D printing toolkit can be accessed on the Green Strides website.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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