Since the explosion of the desktop 3D printing industry, plastic in the form of 3D printing filament is being melted and formed into physical objects in people’s homes at an increasing rate. In fact, today 3D printing materials and printers are being placed in homes and educational institutions more than businesses. The community of Montclair, NJ has installed MakerBot 3D printers in every school in their district, from elementary schools all the way up through to the college level. This is a great development in the education of younger generations, the same way putting personal computers in homes and schools was in the 1980’s.
Every 3D printer for sale in the desktop market makes physical objects out of plastic filaments or resins. ABS plastic (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) is one of the most popular filaments among engineers and businesses, but PLA filament (Poly Lactic Acid) is more popular with home and educational users. Every week we learn about new and exotic materials being made into filament for 3D printing. Often new filaments contain blends of plastics and additives that change the properties of the material being printed for a specific purpose. The benefits can include making the plastic more environmentally friendly, changing its appearance to be more or less glossy, tactile quality, increased strength, flexibility, etc.
How can we be sure these materials are safe to use?
When you smell the fumes from melted ABS plastic being 3D printed, your instinct will tell you that breathing it in is probably not good for you, but how can you be sure? The most beneficial thing you can do to inform yourself is to get the SDS (Safety Data Sheet) for the material you are considering. US manufacturers and distributors are required to have and provide (upon request) a SDS for every material they sell. The SDS is a new global standard that is replacing the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet). The MSDS was the previous standard document, but either way, these documents are designed to provide users, workers, and emergency personnel with proper procedures for handling and working with a material. It also includes information on the material’s melting point, boiling point, flash point, toxicity, health effects, first aid, etc. The health effects include if the material emits any harmful vapors.
When I buy new 3d printing materials, I always request the SDS or MSDS from the supplier. All companies that sell filaments, of any type, should have these data sheets available, and happily provide them. If I encounter a company that resists providing data sheets, I do not buy filament from them. Reputable companies always provide or have the data sheets available for download on their web site. Surprisingly, Amazon 3D printing material vendors do not provide the data sheets directly through Amazon. So if you are a regular Amazon customer, and you want to buy 3D printing materials from them you will need to go directly to the website of the manufacturer or distributor in order to find the SDS or MSDS.
Lars Brubaker, the CEO of MatterHackers, told us a true story about how a few years ago they were located in a shared office space. A worker from one of the other businesses in that space constantly complained about the fumes from ABS that was being printed in their test lab. He said the off gassing from the 3d printing materials was making him and his clients sick. Fortunately it never got to the point of legal action, and Matter Hackers has moved to a dedicated facility with proper ventilation. They also have their data sheets on file for all of the filaments that they sell so their customers can be well informed.
Recent Study Confirms Beliefs
The University of Texas at Austin published a specific study on the health effects of 3d printing materials, including ABS plastic and PLA filament. The report states that ABS emits Styrene (a known carcinogen) in fairly large amounts, and if you are going to be in close proximity to a 3d printer that is printing with ABS plastic filament, you should make sure there is adequate ventilation or a filtration system installed. The researchers did not find much if any concern with PLA, which is made from sugars derived from various plants.
Our 3D printers are located in a home office, that sits right outside our daughters’ bedrooms, and most of the time they are running 24/7. We did our homework early on in our desktop 3D printing experience, were able to gather enough data to satisfy our initial concerns, and determined that PLA was our material of choice. As much as we love 3D printing, we did not want to expose our young children, or ourselves, to toxic fumes. The report from the University of Texas has scientifically confirmed what we already believed, that we made the right choice for our situation.
Still, new materials pose new risks, and we have to remain vigilant, constantly on our toes to scrutinize any new material before we use it, and recommend you do to.