3D printers can be harmful to humans if they are not set up in the right environment, researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology have warned.
3D printing is a process of melting plastic filament and creating solid objects by building them up in very thin layers. The technology is used in a wide range of industries from construction to aerospace, and is now starting to make its way into the mainstream.
Many of the 3D printers on the market today rely on a process called “heated thermoplastic extrusion and deposition”, which emits ultrafine particles (UFPs) into the air. These particles are less than 100-nanometres in diameter.
In an industrial environment, these particles would normally be removed by a ventilation system, but commercially available printers are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories.
If these particles are inhaled they can build up in the lungs or be absorbed directly into the bloodstream, potentially resulting in adverse health effects including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, hospital admissions for stroke, and asthma symptoms.
“These results suggests caution should be used when operating some commercially available 3D printers in unvented or inadequately filtered indoor environments,” lead author Brent Stephens from the Illinois Institute of Technology stated in his report .
“Additionally, more controlled experiments should be conducted to more fundamentally evaluate aerosol emissions from a wider range of desktop 3D printers and feedstocks.”
The team at the Illinois Institute of Technology tested two different 3D printing materials – acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA) – to see how many UFPs each one emitted.
Both materials were found to increase the concentration of UFPs in the air, but ABS emitted 10 times as many UFPs as PLA. The researchers claim that a single ABS-based 3D printer has an emission rate estimate similar to that reported during grilling food on gas or electric stoves at low power.
ABS and PLA are both used by the £700 Velleman K8200, launched earlier this month by Maplin, which is the first 3D printer to be sold on the high street.
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