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Researchers says 3D printers could cause illness

Teresa Tanoos's picture
3D printers could make you sick

Low-cost desktop versions of three-dimensional (3D) printers are now widely available for rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing in home and office settings, but such devices emit potentially harmful nano-sized particles into indoor air that can cause adverse health conditions, according to researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Inhaling a high amount of these particles have been associated with asthma and cardiorespiratory illnesses. Additionally, studies have linked elevated ultrafine particle (UFP) concentrations with increased hospital admissions for stroke.

In this newest study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, the researchers measured the rates of UFPs emitted from desktop 3D printers inside a small, enclosed office space. The UFP particles are little nano-sized particles, which are less than 100 nanometers in diameter.

The researchers used nine 3D printers to print small plastic figures over different periods of time, and then took concentration measurements to estimate the UFP emission rates from the printers.

As a result, they found high concentrations of ultrafine particle (UFP) rates, ranging from an approximate 20 billion particles per minute from printers, using a lower temperature PLA (polylactic acid) feedstock (printer fuel) – to an approximate 200 billion particles per minute for a 3D printer, using a higher temperature ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) feedstock.

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According to the researchers, the rates the 3D printers emitted were similar to those emitted when using a gas or electric stove or burning scented candles indoors.

"Regardless," they point out, "the desktop 3D printers measured herein can all be classified as 'high emitters' with UFP emission rates greater than 1010 particles per minute," according to criteria from a 2007 study, which analyzed particle emission characteristics of office printers.

The researchers also point out that in addition to the large differences in the emission rates between the PLA and ABS printers, there could also be differences in the levels of toxicity as a result of differences in the chemical compositions of the feedstocks.

Although the study cites previous research analyzing toxic emissions from ABS processing that showed toxic effects in mice and rats, the researchers also say that PLA nanoparticles are known to be safe in humans and are widely used in drug treatments.

"More controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider arrange of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks," the researchers concluded, suggesting that caution should be used when operating some commercially available 3D printers in unvented or inadequately filtered indoor environments as a result of the findings from this study.

"More controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider arrange of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks," they added.

SOURCE: Ultrafine Particle Emissions from Desktop 3D Printers, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, July 6, 2013.