Risks and rewards: 3D printing health hazards

Printable foods, printable artificial limbs, printable stem cells, printable bikinis, printable shoes —seems everything can be printed as long as you have the material, the software, and the 3D printer. Truly, the applications of this ground-shaking technology are endless. Also called additive manufacturing (which is actually a more accurate descriptor), 3D printing seems to be the future of “creation,” at least to some extent. Also, there is an increasing focus on making 3D printers affordable and useful for enterprise and SMB applications. The trouble, however, is that almost nobody ever talks about the potential downsides, particularly in the context of the potential 3D printing health hazards that come along with the technology. We’re talking about ultrafine particles and highly volatile matter here, what else did you expect? Surprise — this guide is not about the upsides of 3D printing. On the contrary, we’ll explore 3D printing health hazards and risks.


3D printing health hazards: ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds

Many scientific studies have already been conducted to understand the potential health hazards posed by 3D printing. Many of them have found that these printers release ultrafine particles (UFPs)  and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the printing. What’s more, vapors of UFPs and VOCs  are found in the vicinity of the printers even after the printing has been completed.

UFPs are veritable villains when it comes to inflicting damage to human health. These particles can easily invade the human body and directly impact the lungs. There are massive cardiovascular health risks associated with inhalation of UFPs. Not only can they increase risks of asthma, but they can also become carriers of toxins inside the bloodstream. VOCs pose similar health problems; inhalation of compounds like benzene and methylene chloride has been linked to cancer. The Environmental Protection Administration classifies VOCs as toxic pollutants.

How do 3D printers produce UFPs and VOCs?

All 3D printers operate by melting some sort of plastic filaments and adding minute layers after layers of printing material on top of each other. Among the commonly used filaments are acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA) filaments.

Of many studies and experiments conducted around 3D printers that use ABS or PLA filaments, most have reported similar findings which can be summarized as below.

  • ABS and PLA based ultrafine particles and volatile organic compounds were found in the vicinity of the printers.
  • Low-cost printers were prone to producing higher levels of UFPs and VOCs as compared to more advanced and expensive models.
  • ABS filaments produce more particulate emissions as compared to PLA; however, both filaments produce significant amounts of emissions to cause health concerns.
  • Even with printers that had an enclosing casing, the levels of emissions were significant.
  • With wear and tear, the levels of UFPs and VOCs production in 3D printers increase.

These findings are enough to cause serious concerns around continued usage of 3D printers. A couple of recommendations that most of these studies have come up with to limit 3D printing health hazards are:

  • Place 3D printers in areas that are well ventilated to minimize exposure to particle emissions.
  • Choose 3D printers with built-in ventilation systems.

Some lesser-known food-printing issues

The ability of 3D printers to create food using edible materials has been touted as one of the most fascinating applications so far. However, not many people are aware of some noteworthy concerns around printing of food materials in particular, and objects like dinnerware and crockery in general.

Items printed using 3D printers are very porous, and hence prone to the growth of bacteria. Particularly for printed foods such as crackers and cookies, this means that the shelf life is pretty short. Another problem is that 3D printed objects of all kinds have a lot of fissures on them, because of which the surface area infected by bacteria becomes a lot. So, children coming in contact with these objects are prone to bacterial infection.

It’s inherently difficult to clean these objects because the high temperature of a dishwasher, for instance, can melt or warp them. PLA filament-based objects are particularly prone to such effects. Plates, cups, and utensils printed using 3D printers could easily cause the transference of toxins and carcinogens such as 1,3-butadiene (a mucous membrane irritant) inside the human body, apart from causing increased inhalation of UFPs and VOCs. Though there is a food-grade filament in the form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which is FDA approved, it’s safe to say that we’re not quite close to a stage where we could realistically print food and objects for consumption and use at homes.

Impact on energy consumption

Here’s something else: A couple of advanced research studies have revealed that 3D printing takes anything between 50 to 100 times the energy than conventional alternatives take. For instance, as compared to injection-molding techniques, 3D printing takes close to 50 times the electricity. Then, for laser direct metal deposition, 3D printing can take as much as 100 times the electricity to fuse metal particles. This makes 3D printing applications suitable, at least for the moment, only for small batch runs.

Printed guns — What can go wrong here?

Anybody who has followed 3D printing issues for the past few years would know about the concerns around the possibility (which has been turned into a reality already) of printing guns using these printers. Solid Concepts, a pioneer of 3D printing technology, has fired test rounds using a 3D printed gun. This could translate into a massive headache for governments and public safety agencies. It’s expected that the next few years will witness regulation and legal framework development around the concept of printed weapons. It remains a risk nevertheless.

Printing banned drugs in underground labs

A researcher from the University of Glasgow has created a “Chemputer,” a technology that can potentially enable anyone to print medicines using prototypes. In the future, possibly, pharmacies will be able to sell prototypes to patients, allowing them to print their medicines! However, such technology, in the wrong hands, will be a poison for the society. It’s expected that the potential negative impact of bio-printing will drive strong regulations in the field.

With great power comes great responsibility

It’s safe to admit that 3D printing comes with unimaginably awesome applications that could raise the quality of human life to the next higher dimension. However, all these amazing applications are best explored with a firm and thorough understanding of the associated 3D printing health hazards.