Desktop 3D printing technology is over three decades old. Its use cases have grown as more materials have become available and technology has improved.
There is one sticking point that makes both new and experienced makers concerned about 3D printing. Is 3D printing harmful? This is a question that frequently comes up, especially among beginners or parents looking to make a gift of a 3D printer for their young child.
Safety is a concern. Specifically, the fumes emitted by 3D printers. Are they toxic and if so how do you remove them so you can print safely?
How Do You Remove Deal With 3D Printing Fumes?
Fume extractors actively remove the harmful particulates found in the fumes produced when filament is melted or resin cured. This reduces the risk of inhaling the particulates which can have long-term negative health implications like cellular injury, inflammation, or more severe damage.
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A fume extractor is a relatively simple device. In fact, it is simple enough for you to design and build yourself. A simple fume extractor will consist of a duct and fan. The fan directs or sucks the fumes into the duct and out of the environment you are printing in. An easy setup is to have the extractor next to a window which acts as the exhaust for the fumes.
Another simple precaution to take is to print in a well-ventilated room. It goes without saying that printing in a small bathroom size room with no windows will have a higher risk of exposure than in a garage that is five or six times larger.
The smaller and less well-ventilated the room is, the higher the concentration of fumes will be. The room or the air quality will be denser with VOCs compared to printing in a garage with a large bay door open.
Do 3D Printers Let Off Toxic Fumes?
3D printers work by melting or curing plastic to produce a 3D print. FDM printers melt thermoplastic while resin printers cure a thermosetting liquid to harden it. The process of melting or curing plastic emits toxic fumes. The fumes contain volatile organic compounds (VOC) and ultrafine particles (UFP) that are harmful when inhaled.
What Are Volatile Organic Compounds?
VOCs are man-made chemicals that are often components of petroleum-based products. That of course includes filaments like ABS that happen to be made from petroleum. Source
Volatile organic compounds are emitted from many of the everyday products we use. This includes paint, paint thinners, cleaning liquids as well as copy and printing machines. There are thousands of products that contain VOCs besides 3D printers.
What Are Ultrafine Particles?
Ultrafine particles are aerosols of less than 100 nm in size. Unlike VOCs which are strictly man-made, UFPs are found both in nature and in man-made products. For example, volcanic lava and ocean spray produce UFPs.
Are PLA Fumes Toxic?
PLA filament is made from organic materials like cornstarch. The plant-based nature of PLA makes it more biodegradable compared to petroleum-based polymers like ABS or PETG. While PLA takes a shorter time to biodegrade, it still produces toxic fumes in the form of volatile organic compounds and ultrafine particles like other filaments when melted.
PLA has several qualities that make it the most popular filament for both beginners and more advanced users. Aside from being easy to use, PLA is odorless. Except for PETG, all other filaments produce a strong odor during printing.
How Is PLA Made?
Polylactic acid (PLA) gets its name from the lactic acid used in its production. Starch is extracted from plants like corn through the process of wet milling. The starch is mixed with additives to produce sugar which is then fermented to make the lactic acid units in PLA.
There are several types of PLA including Racemic PLLA, Regular PLA, and PDLA. While they differ slightly from each other they are all made from renewable materials.
Is PLA Biodegradable?
PLA is a bioplastic. Its composition is mostly organic. Like other filaments, however, additives are mixed into PLA to improve its strength or change its color. PLA Plus for example has impact modifiers designed to make it less brittle than standard PLA. Source
Lactic acid is derived from organic matter so breaks down more readily. However, PLA is not purely made from lactic acid alone. The additives used to improve the printing performance or durability of PLA are less biodegradable.
In addition, the processes used to produce PLA alter it and make it less environmentally friendly. In truth, the process of breaking down PLA takes hundreds of years. This is why breaking down PLA requires industrial-grade equipment.
Is The Smell Of 3D Resin Harmful?
One of the advantages of printing with resin is that it produces more detailed parts compared to filament printing. However, resin printing is more complicated requiring more post-processing. This and the higher toxicity of resin fumes, make resin printing a less popular medium for 3D printing compared to FDM (fused deposition modeling) printing.
Resin printing carries a higher risk than FDM printing. Firstly, there are fumes produced from resin. There is a higher concentration of toxic fumes as emissions are up to six times higher with resin printing. Also, there are several more types of VOCs found in resin than in filament. Source
The second factor to consider is skin contact with the raw material. Filament is a solid material that can be safely handled. Resin, on the other hand, is a liquid polymer that cannot be or at least should not be handled. Directly handling resin is hazardous as it will harm your skin.
The fumes produced from 3D printing, whether from FDM or resin printing are toxic when inhaled. Research into just how toxic 3D printing fumes is still in its early stages.
With that being said, the little research we have suggests that inhaling the fumes produced from 3D printing leads to respiratory diseases like bronchitis. 3D printer fumes have also been linked with a higher incidence of cancer.
While there isn’t enough research and conclusive evidence as yet, taking precautions when 3D printing is the best way to be sure.