As three-dimensional printers are starting to become more common in science, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), and Fab labs, recent research indicates that 3-D printers pose serious health and safety concerns.
The research shows that commercial 3-D printers were producing hazardous levels of ultrafine particles (UFPs) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when plastic materials were melted through the printer (Love and Roy 2016). When inhaled, UFPs (particles less than 100 nanometers in diameter), can enter the brain or blood system in less than one minute. Organs such as the liver and spleen can be vulnerable. Diseases associated with the absorption of UFPs include asthma, bronchitis, cancer, and tracheitis.
When using 3-D printers, science teachers and their students can keep out of harm’s way by following these five strategies (Love and Roy 2016).
1. Science teachers should share this blog post with their school’s chemical hygiene officer, facilities director, department head, and administrators. Teachers should request an air-quality analysis of the lab space while a 3-D printer is operating. The results should be able to determine whether the current air filtration system meets the federal, state, or locally mandated air changes per hour (ACH) rate. The ACH is the air volume of the instructional space divided by the volume of the space. An increased ACH rate is needed when a lab is exposed to carcinogens and other hazardous chemicals or particles.
2. When operating 3-D printers, make sure ventilation properly filters gas and particles.
3. To avoid exposure to hazardous UFPs and VOCs, operate 3-D printers in fume hoods or spray booths. Note: The National Fire Protection Association’s 45 standard requires annual inspection of fume hoods to ensure they are working properly.
4. Whenever possible, use PLAs (polylactic acid) plastics instead of ABSs (acrylonitrile vutadiene styrene) when using your 3-D printer. Research has shown that PLAs generate UFP concentrations that are 3 to 30 times lower than those generated by ABS plastics (Merlo and Mazzoni 2015). This is because ABS plastics are oil based and have a much higher melting point than biodegradable PLAs. Both of these factors contribute to the higher UFP concentrations.
5. Follow the latest research on UFPs and 3-D printing through internet searches. Also be sure to keep stakeholders, such as administrators and chemical hygiene officers, in the loop.
In the end
If inhaled, UFPs carry the same detrimental effects of smoking. Make sure you and your students have appropriate ventilation to reduce or eliminate exposures to these hazardous UFPs.
Love, T., and K. Roy. 2016. 3D printing: What’s the harm? Technology and Engineering Teacher 76 (1): 36–37. www.iteea.org/File.aspx?id=96734.
Merlo, F., and S. Mazzoni. 2015. Gas evolution during FDM 3D printing and health impact. 3D Safety. www.3dsafety.org/3dsafety/download/mf2015_eng.pdf