There’s no doubt about the excellence of what 3D printers have brought to the world but one crucial thought comes to mind when the danger that these machines impose is in question. This article concentrates on acknowledging whether filaments used for 3D printing are toxic to health or not.
3D printer filament is toxic when melted at very high temperatures so the lower the temperature, generally the less toxic a 3D printer filament is. PLA is known as the least toxic filament, while Nylon is one of the most toxic filaments out there. You can minimize the toxicity by making use of an enclosure and air purifier.
To put it into layman terms, 3D printing is a procedure that involves thermal decomposition. This means that when the printing filament is melted at an exceeding amount of temperature, it’s bound to give off toxic fumes and release volatile compounds.
These bi-products therefore, do pose a health concern towards users. The intensity with which they can prove to be harmful, however, varies due to a number of reasons which will be discussed later on in this article.
How Can 3D Printer Filament Spoil Our Health?
The rate at which the thermoplastics start emitting dangerous particles is directly proportional to temperature. Higher temperature means that a higher amount of these threatening particles is emitted and a higher risk is involved.
Side by side, it is to be pointed out that the actual toxicity may vary from filament to filament. Some are more noxious, while others are less.
According to a study conducted by ACS Publications, some filaments release Styrene which is assumed to be a carcinogen. Styrene is subject to cause unconsciousness, cephalgia, and weariness.
In addition, the toxic fumes released from the melted plastic, often tend to target the respiratory system and possess the capacity of causing direct damage to the lungs. Moreover, there’s also a risk present for cardiovascular diseases as toxins enter the bloodstream.
Inhaling the particles given off by thermoplastics aggravate the chance of asthma furthermore.
To look into the matter closely, we need to understand what precisely is the danger and in what form. Not only this, but general information on the most popular printing filaments and their safety concerns is about to come next as well.
The Toxicity Explained
Better understanding the concept of why thermoplastics can be fatal for human life will help decipher the whole phenomenon.
Basically, a 3D printer works wonders printing layer over layer, but in doing so, it pollutes the air. How it does that, is primary for us to focus on.
When thermoplastics are melted at high temperatures, it starts emitting particles that can have negative consequences on the indoor quality of air, therefore causing air pollution.
Pinpointing this form of pollution, it has been revealed that there are two main types of particles that come into being during printing:
- Ultrafine Particles (UFPs)
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Ultrafine particles have a diameter of up to 0.1 µm. These can enter the body with ease and target the lung cells specifically. There are also a number of other health risks concerned with the intrusion of UFPs in the human body such as various cardiovascular disorders and asthma.
Volatile organic compounds such as Styrene and Benzene also put the users of 3D printers at risk since they have a connection with cancer. The Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) also categorizes VOCs as agents of toxicity.
A research conducted by the Georgia Institute of Technology in collaboration with Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel took measures to show beyond doubt, the negative impact of particle emission from 3D printers.
For this purpose, they made the concentration of particles coming from 3D printers to come in contact with human respiratory cells and rat immune system cells. They found out that the particles provoked a toxic response and influenced the cell’s potentiality.
Talking about the filaments in specific, the researchers took PLA and ABS; two of the most common 3D printing filaments out there. They reported that ABS proved to be more fatal than PLA.
The reason for this is because of the fact that more emissions are produced as the temperature rises for the filaments to melt. Since ABS is a printing material that takes ample amount of degrees to melt, it’s liable to give off more fumes than PLA which melts at a lower temperature.
With that being said, it’s quite surprising that a lot of people are oblivious of the health risks associated with 3D printing.
Many users have reported headaches, dizziness and fatigue after spending some time with their printers, only to find out later upon research, that the main cause for their ailing health was the constant exposure.
Five Most Common Filaments & Toxicity
Elucidating the topic additionally, we’ll look into and discuss the 5 most commonly used printing filaments, their composition, and if they mean any peril.
PLA (Polylactic Acid) is a unique thermoplastic filament that is derived from natural resources like sugarcane and corn starch. Being bio-degradable, PLA is the go-to choice for printing enthusiasts and experts.
As PLA is the type of filament that melts at a lower temperature, around 190-220°C, it’s less prone to warping and is less resistant to heat.
Although breathing in the fumes of any plastic can’t be good for anyone whatsoever, as compared to the infamous ABS, PLA comes out on top in terms of emission of toxic fumes. This is mainly because it doesn’t require intense conditions to be extruded out onto the printing bed.
Upon thermal decomposition, it breaks down into lactic acid which is generally harmless.
PLA has been regarded as environment-friendly, although it may be more brittle than ABS and also less tolerable to heat. This means that a hot day in summer with elevated conditions could cause the printed objects to deform and lose shape.
ABS stands for Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene. It is one of the most common printing filaments out there used for forming objects needed to be able to tolerate high temperatures. Although it’s termed as a non-biodegradable plastic, ABS filament is ductile and heat resistant.
However, ABS with its common use over the years, has started to raise several eyebrows opposed to its safety measures.
Since ABS amounts to melting at very high temperatures, particularly between 210-250°C, it starts emitting fumes that have reported to cause discomfort to users.
Not only a slight bother, prolonged exposure can cause eye irritation, respiratory problems, headaches and even fatigue.
3. Nylon (Polyamide)
Nylon is a thermoplastic widely known in the printing industry for its prime durability and pliability. It requires heating between 220°C and 250°C to reach optimal performance.
A heated print bed is required for nylon-based filaments to ensure good adhesion and low chances for warping.
Despite Nylon being far stronger than ABS or PLA, an enclosed print chamber is highly necessary to minimize health risks. Nylon is suspected to give off a VOC called Caprolactam which is toxic to inhalation and able to cause grave damage to the respiratory system.
Therefore, constantly working in an environment where the filament is nylon-based is sure to be alarming and precaution is advised.
Polycarbonate (PC) is arguably, one of the strongest printing materials available on the market. What PLA or ABS lack to offer, Polycarbonate verily provides.
They possess phenomenal physical properties and are on the frontlines in the making of heavy-duty objects like bulletproof glass and construction materials.
Polycarbonate has the ability to be bent in any form without cracking or breaking. Moreover, they are extremely resistant to high temperatures.
Nevertheless, having high-temperature tolerance also means that they have increased chances to warp. Therefore, an enclosure over the printer and a preheated platform is a must when printing with PC.
Talking about safety issues, Polycarbonate also emits a considerable amount of particles that could do a number on a person’s health. Users have reported that staring at the object being printed with PC too long starts stinging the eyes.
Polyethylene Terephthalate revised with glycolization has given birth to PETG, a filament on the rise to gaining popularity purely because of its non-polluting properties and high capabilities.
PETG boasts a glossy and smooth finish to the objects, making it highly convenient and a great alternative to PLA and ABS.
Additionally, many PETG users have provided positive feedback that they have experienced little to no warping and the filament makes it easier to adhere to the printing platform as well.
This makes it a huge contender in the marketplace as it is also water resistant and is commonly used in the manufacture of plastic water bottles.
Tips on How to Reduce Toxicity Exposure From Filament
As soon as people are let known about the toxicity of some of the most commonly used filaments, they are all going to ask the same question, “What do I do now?” Fortunately, the precautions aren’t exactly rocket science.
Most printers come with highly specialized carbon filters beforehand to minimize the emission of fumes. Regardless of that, it’s entirely up to us to evaluate and set the correct printing conditions. It’s always recommended to print in a place where there is a good ventilation system installed, or somewhere in the open. This helps in filtering the air and expelling the fumes away.
Limiting the Exposure
Its a good idea making sure that your 3D printer is in an area that people aren’t constantly exposed to. Rather a designated area or room that people don’t have to access to get to a desired area.
The goal here is to limit exposure to the particulates and harmful emissions that come from your 3D printer.
The Do’s and Don’ts
- Setting up your 3D printer in a garage
- Using a non-toxic printer filament
- Keeping general awareness of the threat some thermoplastics pose
- Replacing your printer’s carbon-based filter consistently, if any
- Setting up your 3D printer in your bedroom or living room with poor ventilation
- Not researching thoroughly about the filament you use
- Letting your printer run overnight in the same place where you sleep