Scientists warn of 3D printing health effects as tech hits high street

When ultrafine particles are inhaled they can end up in the lungs and even the brain

A group of scientists have warned that 3D printers can harm humans if they're not set up in the right environment, just a week after the first 3D printer was introduced to the high street.

Makerbot's newest Replicator 2 3D printer.
Makerbot's newest Replicator 2 3D printer.

The relatively new printing method has received a lot of press attention, with a wide variety of publications covering all the latest things made by 3D printers, from bathroom plugs to plastic figurines that can be made to look like anyone.

However, academics in America and France have released a paper warning that the significant number of particles emitted as a result of 3D printing can be hazardous to humans when they are inhaled.

The team of scientists from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and France's National Institute of Applied Sciences found that thermal extrusion and deposition of plastics by a commonly available 3D printer emitted a large amount of very small particles, mostly less than 100 nanometres in diameter.

When ultrafine particles (UFPs) are inhaled they can end up in the lungs and even the brain.

"These small particles can cause inflammation in our respiratory system, or penetrate deep into our lungs and are small enough to enter our bloodstream," lead author from IIT, Brent Stephens, told Techworld.

"Once in our bloodstream, they may interact with our cells, or may be deposited in sensitive areas such as bone marrow, lymph nodes, spleen, or heart. They can also access the central nervous system via our brains."

According to the authors, a number of recent epidemiological studies have shown that elevated UFP concentrations are linked to adverse health effects, including cardio-respiratory mortality, hospital admissions for stroke, and asthma symptoms.

The team tested two different 3D printing materials (ABS and PLA) to see how many UFPs each one emitted when set to work on by a 3D printer.

They found that ABS emits 10 times as many ultra-fine particles (UFPs) than PLA.

The £700 Velleman K8200, which went on sale to high street customers through Maplin earlier this month, prints both ABS and PLA.

Velleman refused to respond to the scientific study because the exact 3D printer used in the experiments was not disclosed. However, the company did send Techworld a copy of the safety instructions that are distributed with its K8200 printer.

"PLA is a safe and non-toxic material, there are no known health safety risks when used in 3D printers," the instructions read.

They continue: "When printing with ABS there is a distinctive "burned plastic" smell. This is quite normal but it may also cause headaches, respiratory- and eye irritation with sensitive people (although it is not toxic)."

Stephens told Techworld that ABS fumes have been shown to be toxic to rats and mice in a few studies. "There is a good chance that ABS-fed 3D printers may be more harmful than PLA-fed printers due to both higher emissions and likely higher toxicity," he said.

The instructions go on to point out that the printer should only be used in a well-ventilated area and "advise" a fume hood is used when printing with ABS. They also say that fume extraction is mandatory for use in offices, classrooms and alike.

"The easiest way for most users to continue using their same printers is to operate them under a fume hood or exhaust ventilation system, similar to a commercial kitchen environment or a lab environment," said Stephens. "I'm not aware of any filtration add-ons that have been devised yet to control emissions, but I think it's worth exploring as another solution."