In recent years, as 3D printers have become more affordable and mass-produceable, they’ve become commonplace in schools, homes, and creative studios. A troubling new study draws attention to an overlooked downside of this technology’s spread: 3D printing, like most things in the modern world, is hazardous to your health.
The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology by a team of scientists at the Illinois Institute of Technology, concludes that typical desktop 3D printers release particles that federal agencies consider toxic and carcinogenic. The findings fit into a long history of artists and makers being told a little late in the game that their newfangled supplies are potentially dangerous.
“A good chunk of printers and filaments that are out there we really should be worried about,” the study’s leader, Brent Stephens, an assistant professor in Illinois Tech’s department of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, 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 researchers studied five types of commercially available 3D printers — FlashForge Creator, Dremel 3D Idea Builder, XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0, MakerBot Replicator 2X, and LulzBot Mini — that print with nine different materials. Each 3D printer spent two to four hours printing a small object while a particle counter measured the amount of ultrafine particles it emitted into the unventilated room.
Researchers found the printers tested that used a type of plastic called ABS filament emitted a particle called styrene, a possible carcinogen. The 3D printers that used four other types of materials — nylon, PCTPE, laybrick and laywood — emitted caprolactam, a respiratory irritant. Concentrations of these particles were an average of 10 times as high as those in a 3D-printer-free space.
“[These particles] are small enough not to be caught by our nose hairs when we breathe them in,” Stephens said. “Not all printers emitted huge, huge amounts, but about half of ours did emit in what we could call a high emitter category … so that’s a little worrisome.” Most of these particles, though, are more likely to cause irritation of the lungs, eyes, and sinuses than to cause cancer, the researchers said.
Manufacturers are already looking to develop non-toxic materials and other ways to eliminate the risks posed by 3D printers. “Until then,” the study’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.”
The takeaway: If you’re using a 3D printer indoors, make sure your space is well ventilated, especially if you’re predisposed to pulmonary diseases like asthma and emphysema. Limit your exposure to the riskiest materials (ABS filament and nylon). Look into 3DPrintClean, a company that recently launched a filtration system that traps all ultrafine particles emitted by standard 3D printers, letting you safely print in any space. And maybe hold off on buying your children Mattel’s new $300 3D printer that lets kids make their own toys.