3D Printers May Pose Toxic Risk To Users: Study

Toxic missions from 3D printers may be harmful to human lungs, according to several new studies, which raise concerns about the increasingly popular devices used to construct objects from computer software or models.

During 3D printing, particles and chemical by-products are released into the air which are small enough to be inhaled into the lungs and cause health problems, both government and independent researchers warn in a study presented at the annual meeting of Society for Risk Analysis.

The research focused on the potential health side effects of 3D printers, which can affect indoor air quality and human health.

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3D technology has existed for decades, but new advancements have allowed 3D printers to become more cost effective, accessible, and increasingly popular in recent years. Now 3D printers are commonly found in many businesses, homes, and schools worldwide.

Researchers from the Environmental Protection Agency, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other organizations examined the health risks from 3D printers, focusing on the potential dangers of particles that are emitted.

Depending on the size and scope of the project, the printing process can take several hours. During that time, chemicals and tiny by-products are released during the process. These particles can be inhaled by people nearby.

In the past year, 3D printers have become widely used to produce face shields, respirators and other personal protective equipment during shortages spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. 3D printers have been a go-to when traditional supplies have been largely unavailable.

Researchers conducted simulations which examined the emissions from filament extruders, which is a type of device that creates certain filaments inside 3D printers. They developed a machine to measure how much a plastic product breaks down through rubbing and sanding during creation in the 3D printer and during use in the environment.

The researchers examined the particles and found they were small and potentially harmful. The particles came from manufacturing materials like thermoplastics and metals, that are moderately toxic to the lungs.

The particles could lead to moderate toxicity in human lung cells, exceeding effects seen previously on rats, which appear to experience minimal toxicity, according to some studies.

Chemicals and nanoparticles were more easily inhaled into the lungs of children. The data showed the particles can settle at a greater rate in the lungs of children who are nine years old and younger.

This is problematic as more schools are using 3D printers, increasing the likelihood many children could be exposed to the inhalation harms, researchers warned. Exposure over time could create toxicity similar to polluted city air caused form vehicle emissions and other byproducts. Additionally, hotter temperatures used to melt the filament produced more toxic particle byproducts.

β€œTo date, the general public has little awareness of possible exposures to 3D printer emissions,” said Peter Byrley, an EPA scientist and lead author of one of the studies. β€œA potential societal benefit of this research is to increase public awareness of 3D printer emissions, and of the possibly higher susceptibility of children.”

Users of 3D printers, parents, educators and public officials must be aware of the potential health effects the technology poses and focus on developing ways to reduce or control the risks, researchers warned.

Research presented at medical society meetings are considered preliminary until published in a peer reviewed journal.

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