With the ongoing growth of the FDM 3D printing industry, there comes along an increasing need to understand the health implications of such work. I am specifically referring to 3D printing with ABS, HIPS, PLA, and other plastic filaments whereby gas and particle emissions are historically known to be high. Please note that I am writing this article so all my customers, and well basically everyone who uses an FDM printer, including the employees and their families, stay healthy and safe.
First, it’s important to be aware that the fumes you smell when printing aren’t just melty plastics in excess of 200°C, but that smell is actually volatile organic compounds (VOCs) being released, especially in the beginning stages of a print when the heater block is warming up. Large emissions of styrene, a noted VOC, occur with ABS printing, and there are already various guidelines in place in the workforce about it as a result of its negative health effects. Some of these, as determined by the EPA, include short-term effects such as eye or stomach irritation and long-term effects such as nervous system dysfunction. Styrene has also been linked to cancer but research to date has been unable to verify the connection, deeming it a “possible” carcinogen and nothing more or less. Before you start running in the opposite direction of your printer because of this, understand that the concentration of styrene discovered during emission studies, while significant, was still lower than the defined permissible amount set by EPA standards when adequate ventilation is used.
We, I am speaking about the royal we, have actually been living with, and here is a shocker, a strong desire for VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) for many decades. My favorite example, and everyone is familiar with this one, is the classic NEW CAR SMELL. Ever wonder where that comes from? Well, that new car smell is a combination of several VOC’s outgassing from the plastics used in the dashboards and doors of vehicles. In fact, culturally speaking, Americans, having a highly sophisticated palate, desire and revel in the new car smell and we have even gone as far as making “air fresheners” that have that beloved scent. That said, China is completely opposite with their taste/smell for this aroma and, in fact, most Chinese car buyers strongly dislike this odor, let me emphasize strongly dislike. What a conundrum the Chinese auto industry was in for a little while trying to sell cars that no one wanted to buy because they had a repulsive smell! It was only after many years of research and sourcing different materials that they were able to remove that new car smell.
Also noteworthy with ABS printing are the emission of “nanoparticles”, a byproduct of 3D printing and abundantly present during the printing process. I put quotes around this word because it is ubiquitously used and has many different definitions. In this instance, I am defining it as small particles that will get lodged in your lungs and likely cause health issues. These nano-sized (very small) particles can interact with the body and possible health concerns associated with these particles run the gamut from cardio to skin to respiratory concerns and more.
Again, though, the information isn’t to induce fear. Most studies concluded that ventilation systems were a key factor in maintaining clean air and that avoiding confined spaces was recommended. One study found that the presence of high-flow spot ventilation near the printer, for example, was 95-100% effective in removing toxic emissions. Properly sealed enclosures have also proven to be highly successful with lowering VOC and nanoparticle emissions. The proper ventilation recommendation still applies to you folks who use an enclosed Stratasys FDM printer or other brand that is fully enclosed. Whether you’re an apartment-turned-office startup or a factory of 200 printers, safety measures to avoid contact with these emissions are essential to healthy printing.