As 3D printing technology continues to become mainstream, there are increasing concerns about the effects of 3D printer emissions on our safety and health. 3D printing emissions are fumes created when the printing material is heated above its boiling point into vapor. These vapors condense into fine particles that stay suspended in the air, where they can be inhaled deep into the lungs.
On the one hand, I think there is a reason to worry when you consider that some parts can take up to a week (or more) to print. On the other hand, the main question comes down to whether 3D printer emissions can kill you or cause adverse effects after prolonged exposure. If so, are the risks manageable?
What Studies Say About 3D Printer Fumes
While digging around this issue, I came across several vital studies that seek to understand whether 3D printers are harmful to human beings. In 2016, the Illinois Institute of Technology carried out what has emerged as one of the most detailed studies around this subject so far.
In this study, the researchers sought to build upon the existing evidence that 3D printers emit lots of Ultrafine Particles (particulates below 100 nm in size) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) during the printing process. For this particular test, the researchers aimed at quantifying these emissions across different printing filaments and 16 commercially available printing machines.
What’s in ABS Filament Fumes?
The results showed that each of the 6 variations of ABS used in the experiment emitted styrene. Styrene is a potential carcinogen that can also cause other effects, such as headache, weakness, depression, and CSN dysfunction with prolonged exposure.
What’s in Nylon, PCTPE, Laywood, and Laybric Filaments Fumes?
When printing with Nylon, laywood, laybric, and PCTPE filaments, the major VOC observed was caprolactam. This organic compound was also present in PLA and T-Glase filaments but at comparably lower levels. Caprolactam is a mildly toxic organic compound that causes irritation and a burning sensation to the eyes, nose, throat, and skin. Caprolactam has not been classified as a carcinogen yet. But the EPA says that prolonged exposure to high levels of this compound has been linked to contact dermatitis, grand mal seizures, and fever.
What’s in PLA Filament Fumes?
The main VOC that was found when printing with PLA was lactide, which is considered non-toxic. It’s important to mention that the amount of lactide emitted across the printers when using PLA was considerably low (∼4 to ∼5 μg/min). This further affirms that PLA is the safest printing material.
How Toxic are These Emissions in Your 3D Space Setup?
So, it’s evident that 3D printing filaments emit fumes with various types of VOCs in them. But how bad can this get inside your 3D printing station?
First, it’s necessary to point out that the study mentioned above was conducted in a 3.6 m3 sealed stainless steel chamber. The researchers point out that the level of toxicity for all the compounds mentioned in the study would be “much higher in a typical 3D printing office setup.”
But CDC has also conducted some research on the same issue, and I think their findings are a little more convincing. In this study, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) evaluated particulates and VOCs emitted by individual 3D printers in a portable chamber. The researchers also evaluated how much particulates and VOCs were emitted by 20 desktop 3D printing machines in a conference room when run simultaneously.
The study showed significantly lower particulate and VOC emissions in the conference room than in the isolation chambers. Importantly, the researchers note that the respirable particulate and VOC levels in the conference room were well below the limits that are considered generally safe.
The argument for the difference in concentration levels between the conference room and the isolation chamber comes down to dilution. Unlike the enclosed chamber, the conference hall has a larger, well-ventilated space that promotes the natural dilution of the VOCs and particulates hanging around. Also, some of the emissions may have been removed from the conference room through the ventilation system.
Now, I don’t mean to downplay any risks that breathing 3D printer fumes may cause to our health. But the truth is that there is no solid evidence to prove that these emissions are anything out of the ordinary in our daily lives indoors and outdoors.
What Can Be Done?
Since 3D printers pose an obvious risk to our respiratory health, perhaps the critical question here is, “how can we use 3D printers safely?”
- Ensure your workspace is well ventilated
As the researchers from NIOSH demonstrate in the CDC study above, the number ONE rule when 3D printing is to use the machine in a well-ventilated room. Back in the day, manufacturers recommended using 3D printers in open spaces to minimize the risk of fires. But at a time when we’re more concerned about emissions, your bedroom would be the least favorable places to 3D print from.
Ideally, you want to use the 3D printer in a less-frequented area or room, for instance, the garage or workshop. By cracking the window or leaving the door open, these 2 offer excellent places where you can leave the machine running for hours on end without worrying about emission buildup.
If you don’t have an external space, You could also place the 3D printer in your home office or even in the living room if it’s intended for the whole family. However, I strongly recommend that you combine adequate ventilation with other air quality methods that I’ve highlighted below.
- Get an air extractor fan
If you feel that opening the window or door doesn’t create enough ventilation, an extractor fan might offer the boost you need. These systems work by sucking air from the room and blowing it out through a vent. The argument here is that in the process of extracting air, the fan may suck some of the particulate and VOC emissions lowering their buildup in your workstation.
- Purchase a HEPA filter air purifier
The reason I didn’t suggest a HEPA air purifier as the first option is that this filter isn’t so good at trapping VOCs. While these filters are excellent at getting rid of particulates, VOCs are way too tiny for them to trap. All in all, having a HEPA air purifier would be a much better option than having no air quality control method at all.
- Print with PLA first
Pretty much all filaments emit fumes that add to a list of other pollutants lurking in your air. However, standard PLA is considered a much safer option as its fumes are classified as the least toxic. PLA is a vegetable-based filament commonly made from cornstarch and sugarcane. When heated up, it exudes a delicious honey-like aroma that’s hard to ignore.
While PLA is relatively safer, keep in mind that some brands may lace their raw materials with other inorganic compounds to achieve certain characteristics. These filler compounds may release potentially harmful VOCs during printing. That’s why excellent ventilation shouldn’t be ignored regardless of the type of filament you’re printing.
Are 3D printing resin fumes bad?
In short, YES. While FDM 3D printers tend to take center stage in most of these discussions, resin 3D printers must be handled carefully as well. The liquid chemicals used to make resin can cause contact dermatitis upon landing on bare skin and can irritate the eyes and lungs too. Again, most of these chemicals are known to be toxic to the environment, particularly aquatic ecosystems. As such, they should be handled with care.
Although more toxic than FDM filaments, you can enhance your safety when printing with resin by;
- Working in a well-ventilated area
- Wearing nitrile gloves when handling resin
- Putting on goggles for adequate eye protection
So, are 3D printing fumes toxic? Are they dangerous? Well, some of the compounds in these fumes are indeed toxic. But as the results by CDC suggest, the toxicity levels of these fumes aren’t anything out of the ordinary. In my opinion, I don’t think there’s a reason to freak out just yet. As long as we use 3D printers in open spaces and well-ventilated areas, we can continue using this awesome technology to change the world.