New Research Sheds Light on 3D Printing Fumes

A few years back, there were some studies on the chemical and particle emissions coming out of the hotends of 3D printers. Although they galvanized a lot of people in the community, the science wasn’t entirely conclusive — one paper made it sound like you needed a hazmat suit for 3D printing, and the other suggested that cooking a meal in a kitchen was worse for you. That’s because they were measuring different things.

This new research paper on the emissions of 3D printers covers all the bases. They examined a variety of different materials printed in different printers. They also measured both chemical emissions and Ultrafine Particles (UFP) which can be hazardous even when the material itself is not.

We read the paper (PDF) so that you don’t have to. Here’s our takeaways:

  • 3d_printer_particles.pngThere was no significant variation across brands of 3D printers. (Duh?)
  • ABS and similar materials outgas styrene at levels you should probably be worrying about if you’re running your printer for a few hours a day in an unventilated office.
  • PLA emitted significantly less overall, and most of it was a non-hazardous chemical, lactide. PLA doesn’t look like a problem.
  • All of the materials resulted in increased UFP exposure. These levels are above normal household background levels, but lower than certain “microclimates” which (if you follow the references) include principals’ offices with carpet, automobiles, restaurants, and rooms with burning candles or running hair dryers. In short, the UFP exposure doesn’t look like it’s going to be a big deal unless you’re sitting right next to the printer and running it continually.

So what would we do? It now looks like it’s prudent to print ABS only in a well-ventilated room. Or enclose the printer in a box and vent whatever you can outside — which can also help prevent breezes cooling the piece down unevenly and adding to ABS’s warping problems. Or just stick to PLA. It looks essentially harmless.

Thanks [Jim Scheitel] for the tip!

23 thoughts on “New Research Sheds Light on 3D Printing Fumes

    1. Build a cabinet, attach a computer fan, and some dryer hose, and toss the other end of the dryer hose out an open window.
      I have a similar setup for my soldering/ chemical bay in my shop.

  1. It would be REALLY nice if this research could be used to circumvent Makerbot’s patent on 3D printing enclosures. “It’s not a heated build volume, it’s a ventilation fume hood that’s saving my life!”

    1. Two comments on this:
      1) I believe the patent was filed by Stratasys, not Makerbot. I know Stratasys owns Makerbot, but the distinction could become important if they ever split.
      2) If you read the claims of the patent, they all seem to be for printers which include a thermal barrier between the gantry and the build chamber. So there is nothing preventing someone from making a machine that encloses the entire mechanism. What this means for bearing life, deformation of 3D-printed structures used in the gantry, keeping the “cool end” of the extruder cool, stepper motor temperature, etc. is up for study/debate.

      1. I run an actual heated chamber, with a actual heater and two mixer fans. 50-55c. The effect on the 3d printed parts is not yet aparent. No real reason for speculating there could be a problem. The other part of the chamber is activated carbon filter with vent fan. Once print is done, I let the print sit in the chamber for about 10-20min to annele the part. Then I run an evacuation with with the blower through activated carbon filter. Works for me. Here is my blog entry on the matter. http://engineerd3d.ddns.net/heated-chamber-details-and-thoughts/

  2. “…the other suggested that cooking a meal in a kitchen was worse for you.” There is some truth to this. Ventilation in domestic kitchens generally isn’t up to scratch and levels of VOCs and UFPs that exceed OSHA limits can build up with surprising ease. The degree of actual hazard is moot in most cases, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand. It’s the same with 3D printing – it’s the amount of time someone is exposed to these fumes that makes the hazard. That doesn’t mean you needn’t take steps to minimize exposure and work in a ventilated area but no need to panic if your not doing volume.

  3. Venting is a good idea however venting abs too agressively causes warping. I use an enclosure with a little venting with a hose to the outside as well as leaving the windows open.
    I like to print in pla however the acetone wipe on abs just works too well. I think there still is no easy to obtain and not deadly equivalent for pla.

    1. You vent the room, not the printer. Just add some ventilation in the room and you are fine. Our testing “building” at Ultimaker that we recently added for ABS. Is just a container with 18 printers in it. After weeks of printing ABS in it with someone in there with a gas mask. We let a company do a hazards particle measurement.
      The didn’t find anything that required action. But the smell of ABS printing still isn’t that nice. But the gas mask wasn’t needed at all.

      (They also measured the other rooms in our building. And nothing else required any action. Except for 1 room in our building, which didn’t have ventilation, and had a buildup of CO2)

      1. Could you vent the printer (instead of entire room), and use a heat exchanger for fresh air intake (and possibly a secondary heater if necessary) to ensure that chamber temp stays constant? I am thinking of those heat exchangers they have for houses so that when you vent air from the bathroom for example, the makeup air pulled into the house regains most of the heat/cool loss that otherwise would exit the house.

  4. They examined a variety of different materials printed in different printers, but only looked at extrusion based printers.

    “New Research Sheds Light on One Specific Type of A Few Models of Specific 3D Printing Fumes” would be a more accurate title.

      1. We have an Objet 30 pro at work. They tell you to either UV cure the waste liquid before disposal, or else you can send it back to them for free. Of course, you know they re-separate it…LOL. However, they have such a gammut of materials, that we really like the printer. Way better resolution, way better closer to production materials properties (think of designing snap fit features), true clear material and so on. Then again, 2 Liters of clear and 2 Liters of support is $1,050.

        Yep, you read that right…yikes.

  5. If this stuff is unhealthy, and the solution is “vent it outside”, doesn’t that essentially make it someone else’s problem? Fumes don’t just disappear… how would one actually scrub these out, so as not to contribute to environmental damage?

    I realize the amounts are small, but if 3d printing catches on like everyone keeps saying it will, then this could add up.

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