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–

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