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Do chemical exposures from cheap 3D printers pose health risks?

By Mark I. Grossman, CIH, CSP October 7, 2016

3Dprinting

A 3D printer can be purchased for less than $500 now, with inexpensive units moving into schools, universities, offices, and homes. Global sales of 3D printers are forecasted to approach 500,000 units by the end of 2016, and then more than double each of the next three years, according to Gartner Inc., a technology research and advisory firm. Even as their use increases, chemical emissions from desktop 3D printers have not been studied extensively. The potential health effects may be an emerging issue for general liability and workers' compensation insurers.

Contaminants emitted

Desktop 3D printers emit contaminants through a thermal extrusion process, known as fused deposition modeling (FDM). The FDM process involves feeding, heating, and extruding thin filaments of polymer through a computer-controlled movable nozzle, which deposits a layer of plastic onto a heated base plate. Layer by layer, the process is repeated to build up and print the object. The heating and extrusion may emit vapors and particles, with these contaminants posing a potential hazard to people using or working near the printer.

A number of operating factors can affect commercial 3D printer emissions, based on the findings of a recent joint study by the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Ecole des Ingénieurs de la Ville de Paris, and University of Texas-Austin. The researchers, P. Azimi, D. Zhao, C. Pouzet, N. Crain, and B. Stephens, reported this important 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 considered emissions associated with 16 different combinations, encompassing five types of commercial 3D printers, nine different filaments, and varying bed temperatures. The paper clarifies how the types and amounts of contaminants vary with operating conditions.

By measuring the emission rates in a test chamber, the authors estimated the concentrations of contaminants that could build up in a small office. The study didn’t verify the estimated concentrations through actual sampling. The authors found that 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.

Adverse health effects

With the potential for adverse health effects associated with the estimated levels of caprolactam, styrene, and ultrafine particles, and lacking personal exposure data, the authors recommend carefully considering the potential for emissions before placing a 3D printer in a space, such as a small office, that’s poorly ventilated or lacks a filter or other means to capture emissions.

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