Three-dimensional printing has become popular with artists and those who want to make custom parts, everything from bionic ears to firearms. But it could be hazardous to one’s health, at least in unventilated areas.
A study in the journal Atmospheric Environment by the Illinois Institute of Technology says the problem is that 3-D printers release tiny particles of plastic into the air that can cause harm when inhaled.
Most desktop 3-D printers work by extruding a string of plastic at high temperatures. There are two kinds of plastic used: acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), familiar to anyone who has played with Lego bricks; and polylactic acid (PLA), which is softer and used for medical devices, cups and plastic silverware.
The researchers tested some popular brands of 3-D printers measuring how much particulate plastic is released by the machines. The particles themselves are tiny, a few nanometers across. Printers that use ABS plastic release about 190 billion particles per minute, while PLA machines release about 20 billion. That amount of particles classifies both types of machines as “high emitters.”
Breathing ABS plastic might have harmful effects. What’s more, because the plastics are heated to high temps, they can change into other substances that might be toxic as well.
The solution is relatively simple: use your 3-D printer with good ventilation or at least, an open window.
Photo: A 3-D printer MakerBot Replicator 2 produces a sculpture at the CeBit computer fair in Hanover March, 5, 2013.
Credit: FABRIZIO BENSCH/Reuters/Corbis