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The Harmful Particles in 3-D Printers

As three-dimensional printers are starting to become more common in science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and Fab labs, recent research indicates that 3-D printers pose serious health and safety concerns.

The research shows that commercial 3-D printers were producing hazardous levels of ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when plastic materials were melted through the printer (Love and Roy 2016). When inhaled, UFPs (particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter), can enter the brain or blood system in less than one minute. Organs such as the liver and spleen can be vulnerable. Diseases associated with the absorption of UFPs include asthma, bronchitis, cancer, and tracheitis.

When using 3-D printers, science teachers and their students can keep out of harm’s way by following these five strategies (Love and Roy 2016).

1. Science teachers should share this blog post with their school’s chemical hygiene officer, facilities director, department head, and administrators. Teachers should request an air-quality analysis of the lab space while a 3-D printer is operating. The results should be able to determine whether the current air filtration system meets the federal, state, or locally mandated air changes per hour (ACH) rate. The ACH is the air volume of the instructional space divided by the volume of the space. An increased ACH rate is needed when a lab is exposed to carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals or particles.

2. When operating 3-D printers, make sure ventilation properly filters gas and particles.

3. To avoid exposure to hazardous UFPs and VOCs, operate 3-D printers in fume hoods or spray booths. Note: The National Fire Protection Association’s 45 standard requires annual inspection of fume hoods to ensure they are working properly.

4. Whenever possible, use PLAs (polylactic acid) plastics instead of ABSs (acrylonitrile vutadiene styrene) when using your 3-D printer. Research has shown that PLAs generate UFP concentrations that are 3 to 30 times lower than those generated by ABS plastics (Merlo and Mazzoni 2015). This is because ABS plastics are oil based and have a much higher melting point than biodegradable PLAs. Both of these factors contribute to the higher UFP concentrations.

5. Follow the latest research on UFPs and 3-D printing through internet searches. Also be sure to keep stakeholders, such as administrators and chemical hygiene officers, in the loop.

In the end

If inhaled, UFPs carry the same detrimental effects of smoking. Make sure you and your students have appropriate ventilation to reduce or eliminate exposures to these hazardous UFPs.

Submit questions regarding safety in K–12 to Ken Roy at safesci@sbcglobal.net, or leave him a comment below. Follow Ken Roy on Twitter: @drroysafersci.

References
Love, T., and K. Roy. 2016. 3D printing: What’s the harm? Technology and Engineering Teacher 76 (1): 36–37. www.iteea.org/File.aspx?id=96734.
Merlo, F., and S. Mazzoni. 2015. Gas evolution during FDM 3D printing and health impact. 3D Safety. www.3dsafety.org/3dsafety/download/mf2015_eng.pdf

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18 Comments

  1. Dr. Maya Lim
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    Ken, thank you for sharing this article. It is of utmost importance that schools become aware of these safety concerns when operating 3D printers, and take measures to minimize any health hazards to all stakeholders.

  2. Dr. Ken
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s response to Dr. Maya Lim’s comment!

    Dr. Maya Lim – thanks for the kudos! Your comment is spot on!!! Unfortunately, many teachers are unaware of these and other health and safety issues. Like I always say relative to the lab – the students come and go – the teacher stays. Point is over time, teachers may be subjecting their health and safety to hazards which can have long term effects. The mission of the safety blog is to raise levels of awareness and how to address these types of issues while still promoting hands-on science. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

    Dr. Ken

  3. Dr. Heather Harkins
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    How does emission (in terms of composition and quantities) from 3D printers compare to VOCs released by copiers and laminators?

  4. Dr. Ken
    Posted December 16, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Dr. Harkin’s Comment
    Dr. Harkin’s question – “How does emission (in terms of composition and quantities) from 3D printers compare to VOCs released by copiers and laminators?” – depends on several factors like the types and size of copiers and laminators, the length of time and frequency with which they are used, the location in the office area, the size of the office, the ventilation’s effectiveness and more. Point is – the amount and types of VOCs produced by copiers and laminators could be less, equal or more than 3 D printers.
    We can however look at the limited research that has been done on these types of office technology. There was a study done in India relative to the effects of chronic exposure to emissions from photocopiers. It conclusively showed high oxidative stress and systemic inflammation leading to high risk of cardiovascular diseases. ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3849716/)
    Another important study titled “Measurements of chlorinated volatile organic compounds emitted from office printers and photocopiers” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4366558/) was very revealing. The results noted “a variety of significant sources of chemical emission in small environments.” Importantly,” the organization of work in office should take into account the placement of printers and copiers as far as possible from the desks (workplaces) in a place with adequate ventilation. It was very interesting to see the spectrum of VOCs found to be produced by office printers and photocopiers.
    The EPA also has noted are variety of health effects and symptoms from exposure to office copiers and other source that produce volatile organic compounds. (https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/volatile-organic-compounds-impact-indoor-air-quality)
    So the bottom-line is in two words – “effective ventilation!” We know these pieces of technology emit VOCs that can affect health in the short and long term. Best thing to do is to have an indoor air quality test done by a certified laboratory while the machines are in operation. These results can help determine if there is a problem relative to the level of exposure for employees and also help direct what needs to be done.
    Hope this helps!
    Dr. Ken

  5. Fabrizio Merlo
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    Dear Dr. Roy,
    Thanks for putting our paper in the references; Related to the topic harmful of 3D-printers we are working on a system able to shoot down the VOC concentration and able to have better indoor air quality using 3D printers; in 2017 the system will be available to the public; to keep in touch on this:
    http://www.3dsafety.org/3dsafety/ ; leave your email and download the paper;
    fabrizio@3dsafety.org

  6. Kenneth Roy
    Posted December 23, 2016 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s response to Fabrizio Merlo’s comments:

    Fabrizio Merio – thank you for sharing your comments with the NSTA audience on our blog. Your research work on 3D printers relative to health and safety issues is critical for a safer working/learning environment in science labs and schools/offices in general. Please do keep us informed of any further developments relative to the latest research findings and other related developments.

    Dr. Ken

  7. Magi Whitaker
    Posted January 4, 2017 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken,

    Thank you for alerting us to these hazards. My question is, without a fume hood, what can we do? I am at a small private school and our budget is commensurate with our enrollment of less than 400, so…a fume hood is out of reach at this time.
    We are using PLA for the most part and I have a relatively large classroom.

  8. Kenneth Roy
    Posted January 4, 2017 at 8:34 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s response to Magi’s comment:

    Magi – thanks – great follow-up comment! The preferred systems for ventilation of 3D printers as you referred to are either fume hoods or spray booths. These are relatively expensive for certain. However, there are desk top devices which enclose your 3D printer to prevent or greatly reduce exposure to the VOCs and particulates being products as byproducts. For example, the 3DPrintClean filtration system found at http://www.3dprintclean.com/ can be purchased and used without external ventilation. It does have replaceable filters which can also be purchased. You are probably looking at around $1500 or so for the initial investment but compared to no filtration system, it is worth it. I am not necessarily advocating that company one way or the other but am encouraging the option of using that type of technology for health and safety reasons.
    I know schools have parents’ group or advocates help fund these types of equipment if it is not within your own school’s budget.
    Hope this helps – feel free to provide other comments!

    Dr. Ken

  9. Al
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    $1500, that’s a huge amount considering the fumes are less than a candle. While its nice to have a squeaky clean environment, its not always available or even necessary. As a comparison, how many of these places have regular pest control which puts chemicals into the air as well as on surfaces for longer-term effects. How about a small fan to distribute the air better? As a suggestion, there are vacuum systems used in woodworking that will capture the particulates and put them somewhere safe that are probably better for the budget.

  10. Tami Brass
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    Another helpful piece that discusses different types of filaments, printers, and heated vs unheated printbeds with VOCs and UFPs:
    “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments”>

  11. A.J. Scheetz
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    The blog post titled “The Harmful Particles in 3-D Printers” is largely lifted from an article it cites; “ 3D Printing: What’s the Harm?” from Technology and Engineering Teacher. That article reviews the current state of our understanding of 3-D printer-generated UFP’s. Strikingly, the blog post would lead me to believe that 3-D printers should be sequestered in a fume hood or some other particulate-capturing facility. Since I’ve taken some time to look into this issue before I purchased 3-D prints for our schools, I was surprised by the conclusion of the blog post.

    As a scientist, I know that one should always go to the primary literature to confirm second hand conclusions, so I read the original article. I was surprised that the blog post omitted several key points. For example, the bulk of the blog post does not make the distinction between PLA-based filament and ABS-based filament. Only at the bottom of the post (point #4) does this distinction become clear. This distinction is profound since as the author states “ Research has shown that PLAs generate UFP concentrations that are 3-30 times lower than those generated by ABS plastics.” The cited article goes on to state that “…in all instances, chemical emissions were less than 1% of the exposure limits specified by OSHA.” The article concludes by stating “…the authors do not believe that schools and teachers should be overly concerned about operating a 3-D printer in their laboratory if it is using PLA material and it is in a facility with a room-change ventilation rate of at least three volumes of the room per hour.”

    The blog post would lead me to believe that 3-D printers should be sequestered in a fume hood or some other particulate-capturing facility, while the paper cited concludes that as long as ventilation is good and PLA is used, there should be no serious health concerns. It’s striking that the author of the blog and one of the authors of the paper the blog cites are the same person. Hopefully the explanation for this discontinuity does not include a case of data cherry picking, but I am hard pressed to come up with an alternative explanation.

    In science, the devil is in the details and sometimes somebody leaves out key details to push their own agenda. That’s why scientists should always go to the primary literature and not rely on blog posts…

  12. Dr. Ken
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Al’s comment:

    Al – You made a great point about the wood dust collection system used in wood shops or construction labs. Unfortunately, you don’t find these systems in almost any science lab. They can be found however in FabLabs, STEM labs and Makerspaces. It is another piece of ventilation technology that could address the 3D printer emission issue. These systems however can be very costly. In some cases up to tens of thousands of dollars unless it is a self contained portable system. I have helped to design these systems for tech ed departments as a safety consultant. Remember also that there at times are 4 or more 3D printers being used in the instructional space along with other emitting type technologies – fax machines, copiers, printers, etc.. I am not certain I would compare their emission levels to just a candle source.

    You are correct also about particulates, VOCs, etc. from a variety of sources. However, I don’t believe using a fan to blow not only the 3D printer emissions around in the instructional space but all the other sources as a solution. You need a system that would remove these emission from the site – again – not to just circulate them in the space exposing occupants to toxins, etc.

    Thanks again – Dr. Ken

  13. Kenneth Roy
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Tami Brass’ comment:

    Tami – Thanks for that great resource in Environmental Science & Technology titled: Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments.

    The last sentence in the initial paragraph of the study is very telling – “Results from a screening analysis of potential exposure to these products in a typical small office environment suggest caution should be used when operating many of the printer and filament combinations in poorly ventilated spaces or without the aid of combined gas and particle filtration systems.”

    Again as was noted in the blog commentary I wrote, there are some important steps you need to address to make sure you or other occupants’ health are not being put at risk.

    Thanks again for sharing –

    Dr. Ken

  14. Kenneth Roy
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to A. J. Scheetz’s Comment

    Dr. Scheetz – The NSTA Safety Blog is an open forum where individuals interested in science lab safety can share their perspectives. Please be aware of the fact that the commentaries I write are limited in space and content. Their purpose therefore is to only raise levels of awareness relative to potential safety issues which could affect teachers, supervisors, administrators and of course students. In this way there are other key points which certainly could be omitted by constraints.

    I am pleased you noted that the 3D printer commentary encouraged you to seek out additional information; AKA – going to the primary literature. Being a scientist, I know you realize there are a growing number of primary literature resources. In fact in reading the blog today I noticed another comment just ahead of yours from another educator who shared an article (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.5b04983) titled: “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments.” The authors in this study noted that “caution should be used when operating many of the printer and filament combinations in poorly ventilated spaces or without the aid of combined gas and particle filtration systems.”

    My point is – when we don’t know definitively all the health and safety aspects of a new and/or young technology – prudent avoidance should be embraced. In this case – emissions. Hopefully over time we will learn more through solid scientific research. This is how we ultimately learned of the health and safety concerns relative to x-rays, cigarette smoke, radon gas, and much more.

    I do agree as you stated – “That’s why scientists should always go to the primary literature and not rely on blog posts.” As I initially noted – blog posts are there to raise the reader’s levels of awareness – not serve as primary literature. In this way, your contribution echoes this purpose.

    Your thoughts and provided information on the topic are most appreciated. You have been very helpful.

    Dr. Ken

  15. Jan Barber-Doyle
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    A review of PLA MSDS shows these are categorized as “0” health risks. The product does not bioaccumulate and is not mutagenic. There are no target organs identified. Respirators are requried when dust exposure is likely, such as when sanding or finishing printed parts. MSDS is a “letter of the law” instrument, so I considered ventilation requirements as well. Per ANSI/ASHRAE Std. 62.1-2004, the rate of air change for a classroom shbe 1.2 cfm/ft2, a classroom lab shbe .18cfm/sqft, and a sport venue shbe .30 cfm/sqft. My classroom is 12800 sqft, and if it were a basketball court, the ACH shbe 2.25. Ventilation design guidelines say classroom ventilation is typically 6 – 20 ACH, suggesting that special vent hoods are not needed. Check with your district maintenance and operations and ask that the air flow be measured. On a final note, although not a justification for making IAQ worse, educational institutions have many more IAQ issues to address, such as mold, formaldehyde, and a host of off-gassing materials. So, even if you don’t have a 3D printer, have M&O check the rate!

  16. Kenneth Roy
    Posted January 5, 2017 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Jan Barber-Doyle’s Comment:

    Jan – You are correct that the SDS shows the HIMS and NFPA classifications for PLA are “0.” However, the health effects are noted as follows:
    Potential Health Effects:
    Inhalation: May be harmful if inhaled. May cause respiratory tract irritation.
    Skin: May be harmful if absorbed through skin. May cause skin irritation.
    Eyes: May cause eye irritation.
    Ingestion: May be harmful if swallowed.

    In this way – PLAs could be a health issue!

    As for air exchanges/hour in science labs – there are both legal safety standards and better professional practices sources. For example, the current NFPA 45 does not provide any prescriptive rates:
    8.2.2* Laboratory units and laboratory hoods in which chemicals are present shall be continuously ventilated under normal operating conditions.
    Part of reasoning for this is some of these codes/standards were written during the energy crisis. In this way regulatory agencies and organizations decided to reduce the air exchanges/hour or to just ignore it like the NFPA did by just noting “continuously ventilated.” That is unfortunate as you can imagine!

    As you note however, there are other standards and/or recommendations that are more prescriptive. You need to check with your local and state regulatory agencies like the local or state fire marshal, health department, etc. to see which ones are applicable to your situation.

    I am in total agreement with your idea of taking action by having the air flow measured. I would even go a step further and consider having an IAQ test done for VOCs, etc. if you are concerned about exposure or are exhibiting symptoms – coughing, headache, difficulty breathing, etc..

    Thanks again – just a great idea – be proactive!
    Dr. Ken

  17. Fabrizio
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    Dear All,
    I agree with Dr. Ken’s statement that PLAs could be a health issue; generally speaking once a polymeric-based material is heated up it develops VOC and UFPs depending on which filament we are using; as listed above look at (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.5b04983) titled: “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments”.
    The very low concentration of VOCs that you can observe sometimes it doesn’t means you are operating safely because it depends on many factors:

    – ventilated/not ventilated room;
    – numbers of 3D printers in the room;
    – type of filaments used;
    – type of 3D printers used;
    – operational condition of 3D printers;
    – how long you stay in front of 3D printers;

    What I mean is that a time-dependent phenomena: e.g. you can smoke a cigarette once and nothing it happens but, If you smoke for many years, at the end you can have serious health injuries; the same is for lab/industrial systems;

    Once you are in a poor ventilated room it is not so easy to find out systems able to eliminate VOC and UFP easily: e.g. activated carbons (ACs) are not a definitve solutions because you need a very powerful suction system able to create a depressurization to adsorb VOCs onto ACs;

    register on http://www.3dsafety.org/3dsafety/ to keep updated or write to fabrizio@3dsafety.org

    Have a nice day,
    Fabrizio

  18. Kenneth Roy
    Posted January 6, 2017 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Dr. Ken’s Response to Fabrizio’s Comment:

    Fabrizio – You made an excellent point which can be overlooked – the cumulative effect is often ignored. Just because there may be few acute type symptoms, doesn’t mean the cumulative effect over time will not produce chronic symptoms.

    The list you provided of factors should be an eye opener!

    Thanks again –

    Dr. Ken

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