3D Printing Safety (According To The UL)

If you want to start a heated discussion in 3D printing circles, ask people about the requirements to print safely. Is ABS safe to print without ventilation? Can you drink out of a PLA cup? How nasty is that photo resin if you spill it on yourself? If you are at home, it’s more or less up to you. But if you are building a shared hackerspace, a corporate workstation, or a classroom, these questions might come up, and now, the UL has your answer. The UL200B document is aimed at 3D printers in “institutions of higher education,” but we imagine what’s good for the university is good for us, too.

The 45-page document isn’t an easy read. It does cover both “material extrusion” and “vat photopolymerization” technology. In fact, they identify seven “most common” processes ranging from powder bed fusion, energy deposition, and more.  The work results from a UL task force with participants from Harvard, Princeton, and Carnegie-Mellon. We were surprised there didn’t seem to be any industry representation, but maybe that was on purpose.

With extrusion printing — what we’d call FDM — the focus seems to be on ultra-fine particles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, the level of VOCs rose up to six times with resin printers when compared to FDM. Filters helped with ABS, nylon, and ASA, and polycarbonate/ABS. The paper does acknowledge that PLA is probably safer, although it is quick to point out that PLA with additives may not be as safe as plain PLA. If you want a quick summary, check out Table 2, starting on page 23.

The rest of the document is about creating a safety plan for all the printers that might be on a college campus — that might not be as interesting. However, you’ll want to skip forward to the appendix section. It has some data about relevant industrial standards and other data.

This is a great step in analyzing the risks of 3D printing. Of course, laser printers and copiers also spew micro-particles, and we seem to have survived those for a number of decades. Still, more data is good — you should be informed to make decisions about your health and safety. We didn’t see much in the document that covered food safety, something we’ve talked about before. If you want to monitor your VOC exposure, we got you.

17 thoughts on “3D Printing Safety (According To The UL)

  1. > although it is quick to point out that PLA with additives may not be as safe as plain PLA

    There is no plain PLA. Plain PLA is unprintable as it is as brittle as toasted bread, you cannot get it off a spool without shattering in a 1000 pieces. So all PLA you get everywhere has additives. (Source: We got a roll of pure PLA at Ultimaker in the early days, it was “fun” and annoying to clean up)

    On the general side of this:

    And when we upgraded our testing room with 30-50 printers printing PLA, the normal building ventilation system was no longer enough to extract the VOCs and we had a buildup of those (we had that measured) and had to install better ventilation systems. However, if you just have 1 or 2 printers running, usual building ventilation should be enough to cover your needs. (if your building isn’t ventilated at all, you will have bigger issues then the 3D printer!)

  2. As far as FDM with PLA goes…
    1) the particulates emitted are chemically similar to and in lower concentrations than frying food in a saucepan or cooking in an oven and opening its door to get food out, that is to say they’re not much different than a common VOC exposure you already probably have
    2) however much of a long term health hazard it may be I’d sooner die of lung-whatever a few years before my notional time, and thereby spend less time suffering the ill health of old age, than go without the pleasure of being able to manufacture any plastic object I wish in the corner of my lounge in a matter of hours
    Obviously this applies to 1 to 4 printers running together, where a whole print farm in one room is concerned you’d probably want some ventilation

      1. Meaning of course, you’ll have to offer your blood if you dare to consider them once they’re dried. Bloodletting is a pretty weak control philosophy and somewhat self-defeating, if only there were something more translucent than blood in measuring intent.

    1. Universities: “We’ve got an awful lot of these things, I hope they aren’t giving people cancer or other health issues because we didn’t take very simple safety measures into account or avoid asking questions about their safety”
      UL: “Here’s what we’ve measured, and some suggestions for mitigation.”
      Mystick: BACK OFF FASCISTS!

      1. Actual Universities: Here is our safety protocol (20 minutes of meaningless disclaimers), now that we’re nice and safe from lawsuits because we have a safety protocol, it’s on you. Have a nice day.

        Actual New Professor: But, there’s no guidance or technical information in this.

        Actual University: Every situation is different and only you can assess the hazards. We don’t have any actual technical guidance. Oh, did we say you have to check, certify, and sign off your own fire extinguishers, laser goggles and other safety gear? Have a nice day.

        Actual New Professor: So I’m supposed to do hydro tests and seal leakage tests on the Air-Pak units?

        Actual University: Whatever that stuff is, it’s on you.

        1. This is spot on. The burdon placed in University Professors for literally /everything/ would surprise most people. There is very little actual support. In fact, most “support” is working actively against them. Give your professor a hug, they are fighting for you constantly to get anything done and usually end up getting skewered from both sides.

    2. Regulations are almost always the result of some incident. You don’t realize how much cleaner the air and water are in many places until you open up old buildings or wash down exposed surfaces from decades ago. Sometimes people don’t even realize the color of old buildings because they’ve been that color for 70 years.

      The zero regulation folks give us child labor, workplace deaths and poisonings and food you can’t eat.

  3. Like your favorite hooch,, none of the ‘additives’ are required information on your spool of PLA. I had an allergic reaction after using a particular filament and a bit of ( non scientific ) internet searching let me know I was not the only one, albeit there were very few cases. Other PLAs, even a different color from same manufacturer do not seem to be a problem for me, hence my suspicion of additives. Some of the PLA makers do offer an MSDSs, but not the brand that impacted me. For summer the room with my printer is Highly ventilated, but for winter I am going to add an enclosure and active ventilation.

      1. Trouble is MSDS’s are written by lawyers, not by practical experience. So they treat everything as super-hazardous and hype up the risks, despite the fact many of these risks would only apply in situations where the substance in question is present in quantities of many tonnes, the often state the risks for something in liquid or gas phase even if it is something bought and used as a solid, and they’ll just describe them as risks, not noting they only apply in phases different from the one you’ll encounter. And in hyping all the small risks, they’re like the boy who cried wolf and leave nothing to really point out clearly when there is a substantial risk somewhere. Before people ask for more products to have an MSDS, ask for MSDS’s based on real world experience and with a dose of common sense in their writing.

  4. I wonder. It is possible to absorb VOCs in a packed column. For the uninitiated: A packed column is a cylinder that is filled with some kind of material to increase surface area (raschig rings, ceramic shapes and other packing material). A liquid is filled in from top and the gas to be stripped from the bottom. The contaminants in the gas end up in the liquid, resulting in “purer” gas. The whole thing requires some careful calculations and experimentation, else it floods, but that’s how gasses are purified in industrial settings.

    Study on VOCs released by common printer filaments: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Tomasz-Baran-2/publication/333964103_3D_printer_as_a_potential_source_of_indoor_air_pollution/links/5e39e311458515072d801183/3D-printer-as-a-potential-source-of-indoor-air-pollution.pdf?origin=publication_detail
    Using corona discharge plasma to decompose VOCs: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10962247.2019.1582441
    Absorbing the VOCs in packed column: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/157597762.pdf

    So I wonder, if one were to use such a column on its own, how much (if any) of the harmful components would be trapped in liquid. If that were to work it could be a relatively cheap solution to build and maintain. Especially with the corona discharge stuff or similar resulting in dilute acids or similar, that could be more easily neutralized.

    1. That study does not, but this one does: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S004896972105258X
      From a quick glance, at normal temperatures of 110C it’s pretty low emissions. Not exactly the healthiest stuff to breathe either, but a lot better than breathing ABS or other polymer VOCs.

      “The most abundant volatiles emitted during 3D printing were lactide, acetaldehyde, unknown (C3H3O)+ ion, acetic acid, and 2-butanone. Of these, acetaldehyde is classified as a potential carcinogen, and so a threat to 3D printer operators exposed to it. However, the immission of acetaldehyde within an enclosure housing the 3D printer after over 40 min of printing was found to be below the threshold limit value outlined by the ACGIH”

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