3D Printer Warning: Heating Plastic To High Temps is Not Healthy

If you’ve ever tried to cut a piece of acrylic with a tool designed to cut wood or metal, you know that the plastic doesn’t cut in the same way that either of the other materials would. It melts at the cutting location, often gumming up the tool but always releasing a terrible smell that will encourage anyone who has tried this to get the proper plastic cutting tools instead of taking shortcuts. Other tools that heat up plastic also have this problem, as Gizmodo reported recently, and it turns out that the plastic particles aren’t just smelly, they’re toxic.

The report released recently in Aerosol Science and Technology (first part and second part) focuses on 3D printers which heat plastic of some form or other in order to make it malleable and form to the specifications of the print. Similar to cutting plastic with the wrong tool, this releases vaporized plastic particles into the air which are incredibly small and can cause health issues when inhaled. They are too small to be seen, and can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. The study found 200 different compounds that were emitted by the printers, some of which are known to be harmful, including several carcinogens. The worst of the emissions seem to be released when the prints are first initiated, but they are continuously released throuhgout the print session as well.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that aerosolized plastic is harmful to breathe, but the sheer magnitude of particles detected in this study is worth taking note of. If you don’t already, it might be good to run your 3D printer in the garage or at least in a room that isn’t used as living space. If that’s not possible, you might want to look at other options to keep your work area safe.

Thanks to [Michael] for the tip!

42 thoughts on “3D Printer Warning: Heating Plastic To High Temps is Not Healthy

  1. It would be helpful to compare the exposure risk to other types of known hazards. For instance smoking (either as an activity or passive), nail painting, glue on new carpet, etc. We’re exposed to a lot of crap on a daily basis so it would be useful to know how this ranks.

    1. This is exactly the issue with this study. It’s showing values without showing a baseline. So we don’t know how this compares to other activities.

      What I do know, is when they tested the air in our office (which is “ok” ventilated, but not extreme) our workshop was much more problematic then any other place. Including the printer testing room. So our workshop (with mills, a laser and other tools) was worse then bunch of printers.
      And, that’s the Ultimaker office. We have more printers in that office then people. We do print 99% PLA, so I don’t know exactly about other materials. Because less is known about those materials, and they generally smell, we only print those at the special ventilated areas.

      1. Last time I looked it up to get a comparison for a study I read on the nanoparticle release from ABS, the values made it seem massive until I compared it to a study in the nanoparticle release in cooking bacon, which dwarfed the printer.

      2. I’m sure the laser cutter is going to among the worst as far as generating fumes go. Back when I was in high school (well over 10 years ago), the tech ed center’s laser cutter is on wheels so it can be moved outside for use. They initially tried just using some fans to blow the fumes outside, but that wasn’t good enough.

  2. Considering the actual study linked in the linked article mentions that a laser printer emits more particles than a 3d printer, I’m not sure how useful this is. Doubly so because they flat out state that PLA’s emission profile didn’t work with their model, so they omitted those results. The results they did come up with didn’t tell us anything we don’t already know know: ABS emits the most particles and probably shouldn’t be printed in places without ventilation. Nylon emits much less. Honestly, I’m not sure why this qualifies as news.

  3. As Nova said, the study didn’t show any harm or site excessive exposure relative to other exposure. Anyone who has been into 3d printing for a while knows that ABS releases fumes in a way that PLA doesn’t really, and this just quantities that. If properly ventilated it should be fine, exposure is less than many other things we’re not worried about, and generally use PLA as it doesn’t have the same emissions. Studies on harm from ABS fumes looked at industrial settings with far higher exposures and short term effects like headaches were seen but not long term health issues.

  4. It’s fascinating that these studies are starting to resurface. When 3D printing started becoming available, people were aware of the potential danger and suggested that printers always be installed in spaces with adequate ventilation. Problem solved. Then as they became far more commonplace people chose to ignore the hazard, filled small rooms with printers and then wondered why there was such a strong smell. So now it’s become a problem again – predictably, the people who don’t want to hear about the dangers are putting their fingers in their ears (or 3D printing earplugs).

    It’s okay to use things that are dangerous if you want to accept the risks. Just open a window in your house, or if it’s a dedicated area in a makerspace, install a ventilation hood. No one is saying to stop printing, just be aware of the hazard and deal with it rather than sweeping it under the rug.

    1. Nope. Tooth sharpness and feet per minute of the cutter speed.
      I’ve had to “fix” that problem for plastics cutting, more than once.
      For some reason, people almost always think that you can just blast full speed into cutting any plastics.
      Always results in Gummed up cutters or blades and a kerf that’s semi melted with chips sticking out like a comb.
      IF practical, use a lube/coolant.

      On a little side note?
      If you’re milling the rough sawn edge of plastic stock with an end mill that’s been used to cut key slots in steel, the difference in the cutter sharpness (up the flutes)will cause the chips to heat and stick together in a cluster that resembles small flowers!
      Yes, I used to get a bit bored during repetitive jobs. :p

  5. Besides being published by a publisher that has a history of publishing questionable reports, the report itself have same weak points (and without any real conclusions).

    But there’s a lot of things that exposes you to toxic/harmful particles: walking besides a trafficked road, frying things (especially fat/oily things), burning wood, etc.

    Just don’t have the printer next to your face/in the same room you sleep (when you’re sleeping*), especially if you’re printing ABS.

    (*Right now I have my printer in the same room as I sleep [living in a 1 room apartment], but it’s a couple of meters away from my bed, and I try not to print at night, but it’s hard to avoid with longer prints )

    1. Total junk science. It’s long known that the printers, especially with ABS, release tons of toxic stuff. The question is: who’s printing ABS in their bedroom? A single braking incident of a regular car probably causes much more toxic particles then hours of printing. Alarmistic garbage in my opinion.

  6. Here we go again. Every time this comes up for 3D printing, I ask people if they’ve ever been to an injection molding facility. I have often been in molding facilities, and the smell of melted plastic is so strong you can almost taste it, even with good ventilation. If the people who work an injection mold press all day every day for their entire career aren’t dead at 50, it stands to reason that sitting next to your 3D printer for 8 hours a day is not going to be a huge risk.

    1. Yep. I work in a plastics manufacturing plant. Extrusion – blown film. Melted plastics are my life, all sorts of types.

      We’ve got 15 large extrusion lines, each producing 350kg of tubing for plastic bags per hour for 126 tons of plastic melted per day, and air quality isn’t an issue.

      The issues come up when you’re burning the plastic, not just melting it.

  7. I’m not really sure what to make of this.
    Yes, making something hot enough for it to melt is almost certain to release airborne chemicals which *may* be bad for you, but working in a city office where busses roll past all day is probably also monumentally bad for me int eh long term.
    It’s nice that people are doing research into just how bad these things might be for you, by the same measure, I can’t quite help to shake off the feeling that this whole topic is a little bit clickbate/scaremongering.

    Are you pressing your nostrils against the hot end of your 3d printer, while knowingly setting the temperature waaay beyond what is specified for your filament? no? I’m sure you’re probably fine…

        1. What W said. Welding is bad m’kay.

          Seriously, you do not want to breathe the metal particles and welding fumes. Especially Shielded Metal Arc (stick) welding releases some rather nasty compounds. Standard MIG/MAG is not AS bad but very much depending on the alloy being welded. There’s a reason welding masks with a filtered forced air supply are nearly universally standard nowadays. Most guys in the shop here are wearing something like this: https://www.millerwelds.com/safety/respiratory/powered-air-purifying-respirators-m00482

          There’s also versions for an external air supply connection, but I’ve rarely seen them used (not that that says much, I don’t get to hang around welders much)

  8. A couple of friends of mine are professional laser cutters (Steamy Tech). They make cases for my TIndie stuff. They are very, very serious when it comes to knowing *exactly* what sort of plastic goes into the machine (they do mostly wood, but the occasional piece of acrylic). They told me that if you laser cut the wrong kind of plastic it makes hydrogen cyanide gas.

    1. have you ever tried working an 8 hour day with a mask on??
      any kind of labour is really hard to do
      I used to work anything up to a 16 hour day on a turkey farm, paper masks turned to crap in a few hours.

      if we are getting worried about plastic vapour, think about breathing in organic solvents or metal vapour

    2. Thats not uncommon, Osha dictates that you must wear a respirator when your in the booth, spraying. In most cases people wear entire suits now, since the organic compounds in automotive paint are nasty. (theres a reason good automotive paint dries in an hour)

      A large amount of automotive sanding is usually wet sanding, which keeps the particulate level down. So this makes it even more normal to not wear a respirator while sanding. If your sanding body filler than yeah your definitely going to throw something on if your sane. But its not uncommon for sanding that is done dry, to be done in a different spot from the rest of the shop. Or to run a extremely large air filter system.

  9. Telling us what anyone with a printer (or nose really) already knows: ABS is bad. It is the whole reason PETG exists. People, trust your nose and trust your instincts, if it smells ‘bad’ IT PROBABLY IS! Unless you are hovering over the extruder for hours a day, PLA is fine. Nylons and fiber filled materials: don’t hang around the printer if you can help it, but it is still relatively safe. ABS if you don’t have ventilation, just throw it out. Seriously. There are other filaments that do the job better, and are easier to print with, and aren’t that expensive.

    https://3dprinterchat.com/2017/07/ultrafine-particles-from-3d-printers/

  10. QFT Howard.
    “It’s okay to use things that are dangerous if you want to accept the risks. Just open a window in your house, or if it’s a dedicated area in a makerspace, install a ventilation hood. No one is saying to stop printing, just be aware of the hazard and deal with it rather than sweeping it under the rug.”

    This is hackaday.
    I’ve no doubt that a bunch of you can build an ionizing, charcoal-filtered, ultrasonically-atomized-water-mist fume extractor hood with just the junk in your scrap bins.

    @CaptMcAllister. I used to have the same attitude. It’s not good for you in the long run.

  11. The canaries in the coal mine are the huge plants where parts are extruded, pelletized, pneumatically conveyed, and injection molded at ludicrous speeds all while exposed to atmosphere. We are talking about thousands of pounds per hour, 24/7 operation here. Having spent a few years in these environments, when they start wearing masks, I will start to think about ventilation.

    1. You are talking about those operations in huge industrial spaces, with a lot of ventilation. I suspect there will be a lot more air quality control in those places than the average enclosed home hobby space. It’s not just the generation of plastic particles that’s bad, it’s the combination of producing them in a relatively enclosed space with little to no ventilation. If you provide a supply of fresh air, probably there is no problem.

  12. Will this crazy fear science never end. Kids, don’t huff your printers, ok? Geez. Let’s not even get into talking about the substances that many adults choose to huff. If you live in any one of the colder states and you have forced hot air heating, which seems to be insanely popular, consider those black clouds of crud that come out of the ducts the first time you turn the heater on in the fall. Hell, just the pollen in the spring is enough to give me issues. The SO running the vacuum can send my sinuses off. Oddly enough my laser cutter and or 3D printer never phase me at all. Even odder is I don’t get no smig or soot or anything inside of the unvented box the 3: printer lives in, I also get very little crap in the laser cutter and it is not from not cutting stuff that smokes a lot. I think my laser cutter is happy because it sits next to an outside wall and the vent is a straight run that is only a about a foot long, end to end. Even if I vented the thing into the shop I doubt an hour of cutting would be as bad as a cigarette. As I said, don’t go out of your way to huff your hi tech toys, but be a bit smart about freaking out about things too.

  13. In my humble opinion, PLA is made of a corn starch polymer and even with such small particles, I trust it. I’ve worked with it for years and I’ve not noticed any problems with reasonable ventilation.

    That said, I really don’t trust ABS at all. The S is styrene and it’s not something you want as nanoparticles in your system.

    It’s easy to try to act nonchalant about your and other people’s safety but I worked in the military where they would routinely submit us to PTFE without gloves, asbestos abatement without HAZMAT suits, you-name-it. I recently advised my girlfriend to stop working in what was becoming a dangerous environment at a paint-manufacturing plant as a QC person. Be glad that there are OSHA rules at your company and be willing to walk if you think they’re not treating your safety in the same way that you do.

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