Emissions Dangers Highlighted in 3D Printing Report

NASA is about to take the first 3D printer into space and have been testing 3D printed fuel injectors. 3D printing is revolutionary but are there downsides?

3D printing is a technology that is revolutionising rapid prototyping and the way we produce and customise various goods. At the cutting edge, NASA is about to take the first 3D printer into space and have been testing 3D printed fuel injectors. Are there any downsides to this technology and its adoption as a mass consumer technology?

Dremel Idea Builder 3D Printer

Prices are certainly falling and although 3D printing is still only in the hands of very early adopters and enthusiasts there is every indication that it will go mainstream.

An interesting article at Science Direct entitled Ultrafine particle (UFP) emissions from desktop 3D printers highlights the potential danger of exposure to UFPs particularly using acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) as the printing material. 3D printing works by heating plastic feedstocks, and this can produce unwanted toxic by-products.

The authors note that:

Many desktop printers rely on heated thermoplastic extrusion and deposition, which is a process that has been shown to have significant aerosol emissions in industrial environments


Because most of these devices are currently sold as standalone devices without any exhaust ventilation or filtration accessories, results herein suggest caution should be used when operating in inadequately ventilated or unfiltered indoor environments

3D printers use several different types of thermoplastics mostly acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polylactic acid (PLA). The benefit of PLA is that it is biodegradable and made from plant starch and is therefore renewable. ABS is a stronger thermoplastic, but it is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable. Polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) is biodegradable, recyclable and non-toxic.

ABS is potentially more troublesome as the report notes:

Primary gas-phase products of ABS thermal decomposition at very high temperatures have been shown to include carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide

Desktop 3D Printer Dual Extruder 3d Printers

3D Printing Health Risks

They report suggests that health risks are not merely theoretical:

Several recent epidemiological studies have shown that elevated UFP number concentrations are associated with adverse health effects, including total and cardio-respiratory mortality, hospital admissions for stroke and asthma symptoms.

Therefore, results herein suggest that caution should be used when operating these printing instruments inside unvented or unfiltered indoor environments due to their large emissions of UFPs.

Responsible on-demand printing using renewable and biodegradable materials might have a positive impact compared with mass production methods. Heating plastics in poorly ventilated homes does unsurprisingly prove to be a rather bad idea as the UFP emissions report cautions.

Further Reading on 3D Printing

By Steve Nimmons

Steve is a Certified European Engineer, Chartered Engineer, Chartered Fellow of the British Computer Society, Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, Royal Society of Arts, Linnean Society and Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. He is an Electric Circle Patron of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a Liveryman and Freeman of London and serves on numerous industry panels. He is a member of Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the Chartered Institute of Journalists.