Is a 3D Printer Safe to Use?


When it comes to 3D printers, there are many complexities to it which can make people wonder whether they are safe to use. I’ve been wondering this myself, so I’ve done some research and put what I found out together in this article.

Will I be safe after I use a 3D printer? Yes, with the right precautions and knowledge you will be fine, like most things out there. The safety of 3D printing comes down to how competent you are to minimise potential risks that can arise. If you are aware of the risks and actively control them, health risks are minimal. 

Many people use 3D printers without knowing the necessary information to keep themselves and people around them safe. People have made mistakes so you don’t have to so keep reading to brush up on your 3D printer safety.

Should I Worry About Hazardous Fumes?

3D printing involves the injection of material in layers at high temperatures. They can be used with many different materials, the most popular ones being ABS & PLA.

These are both thermoplastics which is an umbrella term for plastics that get soft at high temperatures and hardens at room temperature.

Now when these thermoplastics are under a certain temperature, they start to release ultra-fine particles. and volatile organic compounds.

Now these mysterious particles and compounds sound scary, but they are things you have already experienced in the form of air fresheners, car emissions, being in a restaurant, or being in a room with burning candles.

These are known to be bad for your health and you wouldn’t be advised to occupy an area filled with these particles without proper ventilation.

I’d advise to incorporate a ventilation system when using a 3D printer or one with built-in features to minimise respiratory risks.

Some commercially available 3D printers now have photo-catalytic filtration systems which breaks down harmful chemicals into safe chemicals such as H²0 and CO².

Different materials will produce different fumes, so it’s been determined that PLA is generally safer to use than ABS, but you also need to consider that not all of them are created equal.

There are many different types of ABS & PLA which add chemicals for better print quality so this can affect what kind of fumes are released.

ABS and other 3D printing materials do emit gasses such as styrene which will have adverse health effects if left in an unventilated area.

Dremel PLA is said to produce more hazardous particulates than, let’s say FlashForge PLA, so it’s a good idea to research this before printing away.

PLA is the material deemed safe and least likely to be a problem in terms of fumes, mostly emitting a non-toxic chemical called lactide.

It’s good to know that most PLA is completely safe and non-toxic, even when ingested, not that I advise anyone to go to town on their prints!

Another thing to note is, using the minimal temperature for a print can  help to minimise exposure to these emissions.

The Centre for Research Expertise in Occupational Disease (CREOD) found that regular exposure to 3D printers do result in negative respiratory health effects, however this was for people who work full-time with 3D printers.

Researchers found full time workers in the 3D printing field:

  • 57% experienced respiratory symptoms more than once a week in the past year
  • 22% had physician-diagnosed asthma
  • 20% experienced headaches
  • 20% had cracked skin on their hands.
  • Of the 17% of workers who did report injuries, most were cuts and scrapes.

Fire Risks & How to Avoid Them

The risk of fire is something to consider when 3D printing. Although very uncommon, it is still a possibility when there are certain failures such as a detached thermistor or loose/failing connections.

There were reports that fires have started from Flash Forges and electrical fires due to faulty solder jobs.

Bottom line is you need to have a fire extinguisher on hand, so you’re prepared for such an event and make sure you know how to use it!

The possibility of 3D printers catching fire doesn’t actually depend on the manufacturer of the printer, as manufacturers use very similar parts.

It actually depends on the version of firmware that is installed. Recent firmwares have developed over time and have additional protective features against detached thermistors for example.

An example of this is being able to enable “Thermal Runway Protection” which is a feature to stop your 3D printer burning if the thermistor comes out of place, something more common than people realise.

If your thermistor comes off, it actually reads a lower temperature meaning that your system will leave the heating on, resulting in burning the filament and other nearby things.

From what I’ve read, it’s a good idea to use flame retardant foundations such as a metal frame rather than a wooden one.

You want to keep all flammable materials away from your 3D printer and install a smoke detector to alert you if anything does happen. Some people even go so far to install a camera to keep a close eye on the active 3D printer.

The risk of a fire is very low, but doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The health risks are marginally low so there hasn’t been any industry-wide warnings against using a 3D printer as the risks are hard to analyse.

In regards to fire safety issues, there are issues with 3D printer kits as opposed to a standard 3D printer.

If you put together a 3D printer kit, you are technically the manufacturer or the final product so the seller of the kit doesn’t have responsibility for electrical or fire certifications.

A lot of 3D printer kits are actually just prototypes and haven’t been through the testing and problem-solving from hours of user testing.

This just unnecessarily increases the risk to yourself and doesn’t seem worth it. Before buying a printer kit, do some thorough research or avoid them altogether!

What are the Risks of Burns?

The nozzle/print head of many 3D printers can exceed 200°C (392°F) and the heated bed can exceed 100°C (212°F) depending on what material you’re using. This risk can be minimised by using aluminium casing and an enclosed print chamber. Ideally, the hot ends of the nozzle are relatively small so it won’t result in anything life threatening but it can still result in painful burns. Commonly, people burn themselves trying to remove melted plastic from the nozzle while it’s still hot.

Another section which gets hot is the build plate, which has different temperatures depending on what material you are using. With PLA the build plate doesn’t have to be as hot as, say ABS at around 120 degrees Celsius so this would be the safer option to minimise burns. The material oozing from the extruder doesn’t only come out from the nozzle, which can cause your extruder head to get dirty. When this happens, the heat can burn the material causing much air pollution and a nasty smell. You can fix this be taking your extruder head apart and reassembling it with PTFE tape on the threads.

3D printers heat materials to very high temperatures, so there are potential risks of burns. Using thermal gloves and thicker, long sleeve clothing while operating a 3D printer would be a good idea to minimise this risk.

Mechanical Moving Gears

Mechanically speaking, there is not enough power that runs through a 3D printer for moving parts to cause serious injuries. Nonetheless, it’s still good practice to lean towards enclosed 3D printers to minimise this risk. This also reduces the risk of burns from touching a printer bed or the nozzle, which can get up to very high temperatures.

If you want to need to reach into your 3D printer you should only do this when it’s turned off, as well as unplugging your printer if you’re doing any maintenance or modifications.

Hazards can arise from moving machinery, so if you are in a home with children, you should buy a printer with housing. Enclosures are sold separately, so you can still buy a 3D printer without one if it has certain features which enclosed printers doesn’t have.

Gloves should be worn when operating your 3D printer to avoid any cuts and scrapes that can happen from moving parts.

Safety Precautions from RIT

The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) have put together a list of safety precautions when using a 3D Printer:

  1. Enclosed 3D printers are going to be a lot safer than other 3D printers.
  2. In order to minimise inhaling dangerous fumes, people should avoid the immediate area as much as possible.
  3. Being able to mimic a lab-like environment is ideal for using a 3D printer. This is because there is a lot of emphasis on ventilation, where fresh air exchanges with particle-filled air.
  4. When a 3D printer is in operation, you should avoid day-to-day tasks such as eating, drinking, chewing gum.
  5. Always keep hygiene in mind, making sure you wash your hands thoroughly after working around 3D printers.
  6. Clean up using a wet method to collect particles rather than sweeping the potentially dangerous particles around the room.

Extra Safety Tips

It is advised that you should only have one 3D printer per standard-sized office or two in a standard-sized classroom. There are also recommendations on ventilation, where the volume of air should be replaced four times per hour.

You should always know where your closest fire extinguisher is and are advised to wear a dust mask when accessing the printer area. Some people complain about respirator problems after a few months of using their 3D printers such as a sore throat, feeling out of breath, headaches, and the smell.

It’s always advised to use a fume extractor/extractor fan whenever using or cleaning up your 3D printers as there are nano-particles released which your lungs cannot clean out.

Conclusion

Knowing and controlling your risks is paramount to your safety when operating a 3D printer. Always do the necessary research and follow guidelines and advice from the professionals. Keep these things in mind and you will be printing away knowing you’re in a safe environment.

Safe printing!

Related Questions

Is a 3D printer safe for my kids?

With a proper ventilation system, and sturdy enclosure your 3D printer should be safe for your kids. Kids are very curious and love touching things so the main thing is having a barrier between the high temperature nozzle and your kids!

Should I have a 3D printer in my bedroom?

I would advise against it since you don’t want to be in the same room as your 3D printer for prolonged periods of time. If you have a top notch ventilation system then it can be done, but in most cases pop your printer in a less active room. Definitely not if you are using any materials other than PLA or something that doesn’t have toxic fumes.

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