Health concerns with 3D printing

Smartplanet is reporting that current models of 3D printers are emitting concerning quantities of ultrafine particles (UFPs). The news comes on the back of a recent study in Atmospheric Environment on the topic.[1] The study reported emission ranges of 20–200 billion UFPs per minute, depending on the feedstock used.

These levels of emissions are a cause for concern, but come with two caveats. The first is that there isn’t a lot of toxicology information on feedstocks studied, polylactic acid or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Second, there are coagulation effects that may reduce the reactivity of the emitted UFPs.

Though these qualifications are signs that we need more research on the topic, the article serves as an important reminder that distributing scientific and manufacturing power also distributes the health and safety issues that come with those tools. There isn’t yet good evidence that with the gradual erosion of economies of scale in manufacturing comes a reduction in the impact of manufacturing. Even if it does, there are still important health issues to be considered when it comes to 3D printing, of which current consumers may not be aware.

This is only going to get more serious. As 3D printing expands, along with DNA synthesis and chemical micro-process devices (subject of a recent, excellent paper by Amy E. Smithson),[2] chemical and biological foundries will continue to miniaturise and find their way into homes. It is alarming that we’re already seeing health concerns with 3D printers, much less these more advanced applications.

We should continue to investigate the health and security impacts of citizen manufacturing, and how we approach the design and sale of these devices in the future. We should also look to consumer education about filtration and air ventilation as these devices continue to device to proliferate. 3D printers and their ilk are likely here to stay, but we should work to make them as safe to use as possible.

  1. B. Stephens, P. Azimi, Z.E. Orch, and T. Ramos, “Ultrafine particle emissions from desktop 3D printers,” Atmospheric Environment 79 (2013): 334–339.  ↩
  2. For those interested, the updated version of this paper and its companions was published in J.B. Tucker (2012) Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the Risks of Emerging Biological and Chemical Technologies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).  ↩

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