Recently there has been a lot of caution in the air about using 3D printers and their adverse effects on the environment and on the health of the people who use them.
So, it is important to make ourselves aware of the kind of impact they have and ask ourselves: is 3D printing poisonous? Looking into the different thermoplastic filaments for 3D printing, I studied that,
The intense heating and melting of the different plastic filaments used for consumer-oriented 3D printing such as PLA and ABS release fine particles in the air that can prove to be poisonous or toxic, if someone is exposed to them for a very long time. It has been studied that these emissions negatively affect people’s respiratory health.
It is also likely that Carbon Monoxide could be emitted if you are not careful with the 3d printer settings. Check out our post on How Much Carbon Monoxide Does 3D Printing Emit? Here Is What You Should Do About it!
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How Are 3D Printer Fumes Poisonous?
3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that requires the melting of thermoplastic filament (its raw material) at high temperatures and develops the personalized CAD by physically printing the design layer by layer.
A thermoplastic filament is a type of plastic material that becomes flexible under high temperatures which can be used for molding and forming objects by a 3D printer. Since the filament has to go under extreme temperatures, the plastic releases harmful particles into the air.
Some of these filaments have been found to release ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
UFPs are tiny particles that are sized around 1 to 100 nanometers. They can easily enter and get absorbed by living cells or organs. Breathing in high amounts of these nanoparticles can cause damage to a person’s health.
On the other hand, VOCs are natural chemicals that when they evaporate, can simply exist in the surrounding atmosphere. These chemicals are said to be irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat and, in severe cases, cause injury to organs.
In a 2013 report published by Health Effects Institute (HEI), some of the health effects of UFPs were stated as: “lung function changes, airway inflammation, enhanced allergic responses…altered heart rate…and increased markers of brain inflammation.”
Recent studies have shown that the 3D printing filaments; ABS and PLA release some UFPs and VOCs during the printing process. These show adverse health effects, which have raised caution within the 3D printing community.
Also, check out our article on Is a 3D Printed House Safe? The Good, The Bad & What One Must Know
3D Printer Filaments and Their Effects
Amongst many, the two most popularly used 3D filament materials are:
- Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS)
- Polylactic Acid (PLA)
Both of these filaments are widely used because they are easily available, inexpensive, and compatible with FDM printers which are predominantly employed by consumers rather than just industrialists.
Since ABS plastic has a low melting point, has a high resistance to impact, and is relatively cheap, it is widely used for a large number of applications in 3D printing.
PLA, on the other hand, is a biodegradable plastic material. This means that any object made from PLA plastic will naturally decompose over time when exposed to the environment, so it is sometimes better preferred than ABS due to this environmentally friendly feature.
What most consumers may not be aware of, is the poisonous nature of these filaments. ABS and PLA are not harmful when solid but when altered to their liquid or vapor state, they might get inhaled or absorbed into the skin and be a cause for headaches, nausea, or irritation to the eyes.
When these thermoplastics are melted, they emit nanoparticles small enough to get absorbed in the skin which can be toxic to humans. It has been researched that these particles in the fumes negatively affected lung function in humans and animals.
Under long exposure, a creator using ABS filament may be exposed to the decomposed form of the filament: butadiene, acrylonitrile, and styrene, which all contain some level of carcinogens. However, “Under normal processing conditions, this product contains no toxic chemicals” as the Solidoodle Wiki puts it.
We also highly recommend that you check out our post Do 3D Printers Cause Cancer? Risk & What You Must Know!
General Safety Tips for 3D Printing
With 3D printing becoming more common, a lot of people are employing the technique in their homes, offices, classrooms, laboratories, shops, etc., without knowing much about the hazards that come with it.
In general, it is warned to not touch the nozzle of the printer as it can get very hot from the molten plastic and can cause skin burns.
The moving mechanical parts during the printing process can also be hazardous so precaution must be taken to not touch them or interfere so you do not cut yourself from the sharp pieces or receive electric shocks from the high voltage running through the wires.
Moreover, it is important to read and review Safety Data Sheets (SDSs) for information on the particular filament you want to use and follow the instructional manual that comes with, before using anything in your 3D printer.
Lastly, 3D printer fumes are another big hazard that comes with the manufacturing process, and one should be aware of the problem to know how to deal with it.
Other 3D Printer Filaments
Apart from the two leading filaments, three other 3D printing filaments are important to look at to find out whether they are poisonous or not.
- Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA)
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) or PETG
The nylon filament is another popular option for 3D printing especially because of its greater durability and resistance to impact than the ABS and PLA filaments. Nylon printing is used in household objects like utensils and containers, in housing like thin walls, in machine parts like gears and cogs, etc.
However, nylon is no exception to releasing poisonous fumes under great temperatures and having toxic byproducts when used with other materials as investigated in a study by the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Texas at Austin – but it does produce less toxic nanoparticles than ABS and PLA.
PVA is more of an industrial filament. It is mostly used for structural support of the 3D printed object along with other filaments. PVA does not smell, does not produce toxic fumes, and is biodegradable –which makes it equally harmless for humans, animals, and the environment.
PET filament, or its revised form PETG (polyethylene terephthalate glycol-modified) which is resistant to hydrolysis, is also gaining popularity in the 3D printing world. It is largely used in plastic water bottles and is considered ‘food safe.’
PETG is thought to be the ‘safest 3D printing filament’ nowadays as the fumes emitted during the manufacturing process are non-toxic, do not irritate, and are odorless.
What Could Be The Solution?
Now that we have become aware of the poisonous qualities of the few 3D printing filaments discussed here, how should we overcome this poisonous problem?
Experts firstly suggest that the room in which you 3D print should be properly ventilated and have good air circulation so that the atmosphere of the area does not get flooded with all the toxic emissions.
This way the poisonous gases released during the printing process will not be concentrated enough in the enclosed workspace for you to experience prolonged exposure to them. So, do not put your 3D printer in a small windowless room.
Also, you may want to just leave the room entirely while your machine 3D prints. Not being in the same space as the poisonous byproducts that get released means you have lesser chances of being exposed to them and being affected by them.
Essentially, some people build 3D printer enclosures with filters to limit the speed and control the spread of particle emissions. For this to be effective, the enclosure must be perfectly sealed and should have in it installed efficient filters.
Additionally, it may be obvious, but you must explore and choose a filament that produces the least number of poisonous particles. PVA and PETG seem to fit this description the best for industrial usage. While Nylon is the better option for small-scale or personal use over ABS and PLA.
3D printing is not a harmless manufacturing technique. The general dangers include heat, mechanical hazards, and high voltage that one should be cautious of and follow the instructions that come with a 3D printer.
The process also produces some poisonous fumes which can harm the health of the operator. The effects can range from merely being a cause of irritation to the eyes and nose or going as far as impairing lung function and organ damage.
The UFPs and VOCs found in the emissions of ABS and PLA filaments, which arise from them undergoing extreme temperatures, are the central problem of the poisonous condition of such fumes.
ABS and PLA filaments are widely used and two of the main contributors to the poisonous state of the fumes during the printing process. Headaches, nausea negative impact on respiratory health are the effects.
Other filaments include Nylon, PVA, and PETG. Nylon, though produces toxic fumes and particles, is less poisonous than ABS and PLA. Whereas PVA and PETG are considered the least poisonous materials due to their odorless and organic composition.
To avoid getting affected by the poisonous environment created by the filaments during printing, it is recommended to have great ventilation, to not be in the room while manufacturing, to install 3D printer enclosures and filters, and adopt a filament that has the least number of poisonous qualities.
Also check out our writing on Why was 3D Printing Invented? History, limitations and the future of 3d Printing