Commercial 3D printers emit traces of toxic fumes, study finds

A study has found the particles emitted from consumer-grade 3D printers could negatively impact indoor air quality, with the potential to harm respiratory health.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology collected particles emitted from 3D printers and conducted several tests to gauge their impact on respiratory cell cultures.

“All of these tests, which were done at high doses, showed that there is a toxic response to the particles from various types of filaments used by these 3D printers,” said Professor Rodney Weber, who led the research.

The researchers looked closely at the chemical composition of the particles and their potential for toxicity.

3D printers often function by melting plastic filaments and then depositing the solution layer upon layer to form a custom object. Heating the plastic releases volatile compounds, some of which form ultrafine particles emitted into the air near the printer and the object.

Previous research demonstrated that the hotter the temperature required to melt the filament, the more emissions were produced. As a result, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) plastic filaments - which require a higher temperature to melt - produced more emissions than filaments made of polylactic acid (PLA), which melt at a lower temperature.

To test the impact of the emissions on live cells, they exposed human respiratory cells and rat immune system cells to concentrations of the particles from the printers. They found that although the tests did not reflect actual exposures, both ABS and PLA particles negatively impacted the cells.

“The toxicity tests showed that PLA particles were more toxic than the ABS particles on a per-particle comparison, but because the printers emitted so much more of the ABS - it’s the ABS emissions that end up being more of the concern,” Weber said. “Taken together, these tests indicate that exposure to these filament particles could over time be as toxic as the air in an urban environment polluted with vehicular or other emissions.”

Another finding of the study was that the ABS particles emitted from the 3D printers had chemical characteristics that were different than the ABS filament.

“When the filament companies manufacture a certain type of filament, they may add small mass percentages of other compounds to achieve certain characteristics, but they mostly do not disclose what those additives are,” Weber said. “Because these additives seem to affect the amount of emissions for ABS, and there can be great variability in the type and amount of additives added to ABS, a consumer may buy a certain ABS filament, and it could produce far more emissions than one from a different vendor.”

The study also considered which indoor environmental scenarios would be worst affected by emissions from a 3D printer. They estimated that in a commercial building setting such as a school or an office, better ventilation would limit the amount of exposure to the emissions. However, in a typical residential setting with less effective ventilation, the exposure could be much higher.

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