A decrease in price and an increase in interest in three-dimensional (3D) printers have resulted in more of them in the workplace and in homes. However, questions surfacing about potential health effects of using this technology.

New research published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene (JOEH) has found that common filaments used in 3D printers can emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) during the printing process. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, excessive exposure to VOCs can lead to eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches; loss of coordination; and nausea.

In the abstract of the study, authors Szymon Wojtyła, Piotr Klama, and Tomasz Baran noted: "Three-dimensional (3D) printing is gaining popularity especially due to the fact that this is a rapid prototyping and small-scale manufacturing technology. Printers have numerous applications in various industrial sectors, including electronics, medicine and medical science, consumer products, aerospace and defense, automotive industry, entertainment and education. The discussed technology, also known as additive manufacturing, makes it faster and easier to produce complex objects with intricate designs."

Soon, they added, it will be affordable enough to have every single home equipped with it. The fast development of low-cost, desktop, 3D printers has made those devices "widely accessible" for goods manufacturing at home. "However," the authors ask, "is it safe?”

They suggested that users “may belittle the effects or influences of pollutants (organic compounds and ultrafine particles) generated by the devices in question,” adding, “Within the scope of this study, the authors attempt to investigate thermal decomposition of the following commonly used, commercially available thermoplastic filaments: acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and nylon.”

In the study, the authors tested the fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing process, the most common process found in commercial 3D printers. FDM devices work by heating filaments at various temperatures. The authors found that acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (ABS), polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and nylon emit VOCs even at temperatures below the printing temperature.

One way to control VOC emissions from 3D printers is through photocatalytic filters, which use ultraviolet light to limit exposures. The authors added that good practice for using 3D printers includes adequate ventilation in the area where the printer is being used. While printing in a large, well-ventilated room is not a threat to the user, the use of a 3D printer in a room with poor ventilation could lead to a hazardous increase of VOCs in the air.

For more information, read the full study in the JOEH.