Early last year I wrote an article on 3D printer safety detailing some of the hidden hazards that our desktop 3D printers could pose to our health. Since that time I have not seen much in the way of mitigation activities coming from hardware manufacturers, and even fewer willing to discuss the issue.
So what is the dangers we’re talking about here? When you run your FDM 3D printer, the hotend melts a plastic filament and extrudes it onto a (usually) heated buildplate. This melting of plastic releases two main potential toxins. Nanoparticles (NP) and Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) gases.
The trouble comes in two major ways; mechanical injury from the inhalation of nanoparticles (the UFPs or “ultrafine particles”), and exposure poisoning from the chemicals present in and/or released from the polymers, particularly the “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs).
In addition there is both acute and chronic health risks. Acute effects are those events that are severe and sudden, such as respiratory distress, or more severely, cardiac arrest. A chronic effect on the other hand, is a long-developing syndrome, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) which can take years to develop.
Lets’ start with the particulates. Nanoparticle (NP) and Ultrafine Particles (UFP) are the interchangeable generic terms for any solid particle that is less than 100 nanometers in size. NP/UFPs can present several different kinds of dangers due to not only their composition, which may or may not be toxic, but also their size.
When inhaled, NP/UFP can become trapped in the very smallest areas of the lung’s alveoli, which are the tiny sacs covered in blood capillaries where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged between the blood stream and the lungs. If they are small enough, the particles can actually pass directly from the lungs into the blood stream, and once there move on to, and accumulate in, other organs in the body such as the brain, the liver, or spleen.
And the particles do not have to be toxic in and of themselves to cause problems or poisoning, so even PLA particles (which currently are widely believed to be non-toxic) can build up in the lungs and cause serious harm.
On the other hand, VOCs can include any number of different chemicals and in varying amounts. For example, in ABS, the VOCs released when the filament is melted can contain 10 to 20 different chemicals, most notably Styrene, a chemical which has been classified as toxic and a possible carcinogen.
While it may be common knowledge to most of us that operators must use adequately ventilated work spaces; knowing something and doing something are often two different things. We all know everyone should wash your hands after using a public restroom, but how often have we seen people who do not? Secondly, safety rules have to be communicated…frequently. While experienced operators may be very knowledgeable about the dangers, what about the hundreds of brand new operators we add to our ranks every day? Our technology is growing and spreading quickly, but education and experience always lags behind.
The best safety solutions to technological problems has always been a combination of education and hardware design. There are a few manufactures who have integrated filters into their machines, some of which I have previously written about, such as HyVision’s Cubicon (http://www.hyvision.co.kr/english/common/main.asp). But more needs to be done, especially for those of us who have older machines. Happily, it appears that there are some talented people looking to do just that.
I recently became aware of Zimple (http://www.zimple3d.com/), a French startup that is about to launch a Kickstarter for their new 3D printing nanoparticle and vapor filter called the “Zimpure”. The best part? It appears to be small, easy to retrofit to just about any desktop printer, and it blends with the machine…meaning it is not a bag or box that you have to stuff your printer into in order to use it effectively. Dare I say it is even…elegant.
And while I am not endorsing the Zimpure…yet, it does have some impressive research and testing results to back it up which you can read on their website, or here: http://www.zimple3d.com/static/zimpure/study-report/Evaluation-of-an-innovative-filtration-system-for-Particulate-Matter-and-Volatile-Organic-Compounds-emitted-by-Desktop-3D-printers.pdf.
So for your health, and the health of those around you, go over and check them out. My guess is that if this project is successful, other researchers and companies will follow suit, and home 3D printing will get a big boost in terms of safety…and your neighbors will stop complaining about the smells coming from your garage.