The Potential Health Risks of 3D Printing at Home

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Since the early 2000s, when the RepRap movement took off, 3D printing has gained commercial success worldwide. Though a big chunk of the market is allocated to industrial additive marketing, more affordable desktop 3D printers made for hobbyists have also seen a surge in popularity, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Grand View Research, the global desktop 3D printing market size was estimated to be worth $3.96B in 2022. It’s projected to rapidly grow further in upcoming years, especially in countries like China where affordable 3D printer manufacturers with solutions designed for home users are abundant. But is it safe for users to be 3D printing at home? Researchers at Dublin City University have expressed some reservations.

The reservations stem from a recent study titled “Characterization of Volatile and Particulate Emissions from Desktop 3D Printers” authored by Melissa Finnegan, Collen Lee Thach, Shirin Khaki, Emma Markey, David J. O’Conner, Alan F. Smeaton, and Aoife Morrin. The researchers were investigating indoor air pollution and emissions released indoors, considering the significant amount of time individuals spend in their homes. Part of the study involved investigating the emissions that consumer devices such as 3D printers release into our living spaces.

Exploring the Impact of 3D Printing on User Health

The researchers decided to investigate the emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulates during 3D printing, due to rising health and safety concerns in recent years. Notably, their focus was on the safety of 3D printing PLA and ABS filaments, meaning their study was limited to FDM 3D printers. The researchers used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to profile VOC emissions and attached a particle analyzer (WIBS) to the printer to quantify and measure the particulate emissions.

As per the abstract of the study, the research confirmed that “3D printing processes release a wide range of VOCs, including straight and branched alkanes, benzenes, and aldehydes. Emission profiles depend on the type of filament and also significantly on the brand of filament. The size, shape, and fluorescent characteristics of particle emissions were characterized for PLA-based printing emissions and were found to vary with the filament employed.”

The researchers concluded that safety measures, like improved ventilation and careful selection of filament brand, are necessary in all 3D printing environments. Though these findings are applicable to all 3D printers, industrial or otherwise, Dr. Morrin highlighted the difference with cheaper, home-use 3D printers. He noted, “In an industrial setting, there will be enclosures, ventilators in the room, and the emissions will be monitored. However, when we bring these printers, that cost around €200, into homes, they come without enclosure, ventilation, and are usually operated in less ventilated environments. Usually, the best ventilation available in such settings is a window, which may or may not be open.”

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However, it needs to be highlighted that the researchers are not intending to discourage anyone from 3D printing. Rather, they are advocating for increased awareness, particularly among beginners who are using inexpensive printers that may lack advanced safety features like an enclosure or in-built ventilation system. In a recent conversation with the Irish Independent, Dr. Morrin pointed out that simple actions like opening a window or wearing a mask can protect against potentially harmful 3D printer emissions at home.

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