With prices of 3D printers dropping below $500, inexpensive units have moved increasingly into schools, universities, offices, and homes. Gartner Inc., a technology research and advisory firm, expects worldwide 3D printer sales to approach half a million units by the end of 2016—and to more than double every year until 2019. Despite the increasing frequency of use, there are very few studies of desktop 3D printer emissions. The potential health effects represent an emerging issue for general liability and workers' compensation writers.
Desktop 3D printers generate contaminants through a thermal extrusion process used by the units called fused deposition modeling (FDM). In the FDM process, thin filaments of polymer are fed, heated, and extruded through a computer-controlled movable nozzle that deposits a layer of plastic onto a heated base plate. The process is repeated, applying layer upon layer to build up and print the object. As the material is heated and extruded, vapors and particles may be emitted, potentially exposing people working with or near the printer to these contaminants.
A number of operating factors can affect emissions from commercial 3D printers according to a recent joint study from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Ecole des Ingénieurs de la Ville de Paris, and University of Texas-Austin. Researchers P. Azimi, D. Zhao, C. Pouzet, N. Crain, and B. Stephens reported this key finding in their paper “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,” published in the January 2016 issue of Environmental Science & Technology. The study investigated emissions associated with 16 different combinations consisting of five commercial 3D printer types, nine different filaments, and varying bed temperatures. The paper provides insight into how the types and amounts of contaminants are dependent upon operating conditions.
Based on the emission rates measured in a test chamber, the authors estimated the concentrations of contaminants that might be expected in a small office environment. The scope of the study didn’t include actual sampling to verify the estimated concentrations. The authors stated the estimated concentration of caprolactam from nylon filaments exceeded environmental levels adopted by California, which account for health effects on infants, children, and other sensitive populations.
With the potential for adverse health effects associated with the estimated levels of caprolactam, styrene, and ultrafine particles, and in the absence of personal exposure data, the authors recommend emissions be taken into account before locating a 3D printer into a space, such as a small office that’s not well ventilated or without a filtration or other device to capture emissions.
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