If you have a 3D printer, you need to make sure it’s in a well-ventilated area–and maybe keep it out of a child’s room–because across the board, 3D printers release tiny, undetectable materials that could be toxic and embed themselves into your body permanently.
This advice comes courtesy of Georgia Tech professor Dr. Rodney Weber, who recently oversaw a landmark study on the emissions of 3D printers that was published in Aerosol Science and Technology. Part of a broader collection of research four years in the making, the study sought to standardize the way we measure the particulates put out by 3D printers so that we might one day certify some 3D printers and their components as healthier than others on the market.
Numerous studies have already confirmed that when 3D printers melt down plastic filaments to shape objects, they release nasty stuff into the air–particles as small as 100 microns (meaning they’re roughly 1/10 the diameter of a single bacterium, or 1/1000th the width of a human hair). But as Weber explains, just how much of this stuff went airborne was hard to measure, because every study was looking at a different combination of machines and filaments, with the emissions being measured in different conditions.
“There was no standard, so you can’t really compare the results,” says Weber. Instead of developing yet another methodology, Weber’s team started with a standard we already developed for laser printers–yes, the 2D printers featured in offices everywhere. It basically involves putting a printer in an airtight chamber, and taking measurements while pumping in more air at a precisely controlled rate.
From the new research, Weber’s team discovered a few things. For one, there is no such thing as a 3D printer that doesn’t emit concerning microparticles into the air. Even industrial models that appear sealed, complete with fans and filters, put out measurable particulates.
“We found that helps a little bit but not a lot,” says Weber. “It’s like people in China wearing face masks for the pollution. It doesn’t do much because the particles are so small they go through the cracks.”
Another discovery was that because filaments are actually mixtures of many chemicals–think of them as plastic cocktails. Designed to satisfy all sorts of material and aesthetic properties, the chemicals they released varied wildly from one brand or model to another. And even if a chemical is only a tiny component of the filament, it can still be released in significant amounts into the air.
“The mass of the particles produced in an aerosol is orders of magnitude smaller than what you extrude [for a 3D shape],” says Weber. “They mix in all kinds of things.” And measuring the potential impact all those discrete chemicals could have on human health is hard to assess, to say the least.
Finally, the heat at which the filament was melted had a major impact on what chemicals became aerosols. As a general rule, the cooler a 3D printer ran, the better the air quality was around it. And hopefully that’s the sort of insight that manufacturers can keep in mind when designing 3D printers of the future.
So how worried should we be in the meantime? A bit. “I wouldn’t say it’s terrifying because you get exposed to these particles all the time from roadway emissions–like diesel cars. It’s not like 3D printers create the only nanoparticles in the world,” says Weber. “It’s just that it’s unregulated and people haven’t thought about it much.”
“To be honest, I wouldn’t be too concerned as long as you have good ventilation,” he continues. “That’s what it comes down to. If you have a bunch of printers in one room like a classroom, you walk in and can smell plastic, then I’d be concerned about it.”