My Thoughts on New Studies of Toxic Emissions from 3D Printers

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Some new studies are quantifying the levels of toxic emissions from conventional 3D printers using conventional plastic filaments of various types. The results are not particularly encouraging, but are not a big surprise. They are certainly important to note, and since I’ve discussed the usefulness of 3D printing many times in the past, I wanted to pass along some of my thoughts regarding these new reports. (Gizmodo’s summary is here: https://gizmodo.com/new-study-details-all-the-toxic-particles-spewed-out-by-3d-p-1830379464).

The big takeaways are pretty much in line with what we already knew (or at least suspected), but add some pretty large exclamation points.

PLA filament generally produces far fewer toxic emissions than most other filament compositions (especially ABS), and is what I would almost always recommend using in the vast majority of cases.

The finding that inexpensive filaments tend to have more emissions than “name brands” is interesting, probably related to levels of contaminants in the raw filament ingredients. However, in practice filament has become so fungible — with manufacturers putting different brand names on the same physical filament from the same factories — it’s often difficult to really know if you’re definitely buying the filament that you think you are. And of course, the most widely used filaments tend to be among the most inexpensive.

My own recommendation has always been to never run a 3D printer that doesn’t have its own enclosed build area air chamber (which the overwhelming vast majority don’t) in a room routinely occupied by people or animals — print runs can take many hours and emissions are continuing the entire time. Printing outside isn’t typically practical due to air currents and sudden temperature changes. A generally good location for common “open” printers is a garage, ideally with a ventilation fan.

The reported fact that filament color affects emissions is not unexpected — there has long been concern about the various additives that are used to create these colors. Black filament is probably the worst case, since it tends to have all sorts of leftover filament scraps and gunk thrown into the mix — the fact that black filament tends to regularly clog 3D printers is another warning sign.

Probably the safest choice overall when specific colors aren’t at issue, is to print with “natural color” (whitish, rather transparent) PLA filament, which tends to have minimum additives. It also is typically the easiest and most reliable to print with, probably for that same reason.

The finding that there is a “burst” of aerosol emissions when printing begins is particularly annoying, since it’s when printing is getting started that you tend to be most closely inspecting the process looking for early print failures.

So the bottom line is pretty much what you’d expect — breathing the stuff emanating from molten plastic isn’t great for you. Then again, even though it only heated the plastic sheets for a few minutes at a time (as opposed to the hours-long running times of modern 3D printers), I loved my old Mattel “VAC-U-FORM” when I was a kid — and who knows how toxic the plastics heated in that beauty really were (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCvgvWiZNe8). Egads, not only can you still get them on eBay, replacement parts and plastic refill packs are still being sold as well!

I guess that they got it right in the “The Graduate” after all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dug-G9xVdVs

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth

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Google has reached what could very well be an existential moment of truth in its corporate history.

The recent global walkout of Google employees and contractors included more than 20,000 participants by current counts, and the final numbers are almost certain to be even higher. This puts total participation at something north of 20% of the entire firm — a remarkable achievement by the organizers.

Almost a month ago, when I posted my concerns regarding the path that this great company has been taking, and the associated impacts on both their employees and users (“The Death of Google” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), the sexual assault and harassment issues that were the proximate trigger for the walkout were not yet known publicly — not even to most Googlers.

These newly reported management failures clearly fit tightly into the same pattern of longstanding issues that I’ve frequently noted, and various broad concerns related to Google’s accountability and transparency that have been cited as additional foundational reasons for the walkout.

Google today — almost exactly twenty years since its founding — is at a crossroads. The decisions that management makes now regarding the issues that drove the walkout and other issues of concern to Googlers, Google’s users, and the world at large, will greatly impact the future success of the firm, or even how long into the future Google will continue to exist in a recognizable form at all.

That so many of these issues have reached the public sphere at around the same time — sexual abuse and harassment, Googlers’ concerns about military contracts and a secret project aimed at providing Chinese-government censored search, and more — should not actually be a surprise.

For all of these matters are symptomatic of larger problematic ethical factors that have crept into Google’s structure, and without a foundational change of direction in this respect, new concerns will inevitably keep arising, and Google will keep lurching from crisis to crisis.

The walkout organizers will reportedly be meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai imminently, and I fully endorse the organizers’ publicly stated demands.

But management deeds are needed — not just words. After a demonstration of this nature, it’s all too easy for conciliatory statements to not be followed by concrete and sustained actions, and then for the original status quo to reassert itself over time.

This is also a most appropriate moment for Google to act on a range of systemic factors that have led to transparency, accountability, and other problems associated with Google management’s interactions with rank-and-file employees, and between Google as a whole and its users. 

Regarding the latter point, since I’ve many times over the years publicly outlined my thoughts regarding the need for Google employees dedicated to roles such as ombudsperson, user advocates, and ethics officer (call the latter “Guardian of Googleyness” if you prefer), I won’t detail these crucial positions again here now. But as the walkout strongly suggests, these all are more critically needed by Google than ever before, because they all connect back to the basic ethical issues at the core of many concerns regarding Google.

These are all interconnected and interrelated matters, and attempts to improve any of them in isolation from the others will ultimately be like sweeping dirt under the proverbial rug — such problems are pretty much guaranteed to eventually reemerge with even more serious negative consequences down the line.

Google is indeed a great company. No firm can be better than its employees, and Google’s employees — a significant number of whom I know personally — have through their walkout demonstrated to the world something that I already knew about them. 

Googlers care deeply about Google. They want it to be the best Google that it possibly can be, and that means meeting high ethical standards vertically, horizontally, and from A to Z.

Now it’s Google’s management’s turn. Can they demonstrate to their employees, to Google’s users, and to the global community, that loyalty towards Google has not been misplaced?

We shall see.

–Lauren–