Yes, 3D printer fumes can be dangerous. In the 3D printing process, the melting of plastic releases harmful particles into the air. Notably, the melting of ABS, PETG, and Nylon filaments emits particles that may induce headaches, nausea and irritate the eyes and nasal tract.
3D printers are getting increasingly common in households and industries alike. With this, there is a concern about whether or not they are entirely human-friendly. After all, fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3D printing works by melting plastic. This raises the question of 3D printing safety and long-term exposure to 3D printer fumes.
In this article, we’ll understand the various health-related concerns surrounding 3D printing. We’ll look at the multiple filaments and how safe they are. Then, we’ll go over some of the ways you can mitigate the risks associated with using a 3D printer. The article aims not to scare you away from 3D printing but instead make you more aware of the risks and associated measures you can take to protect yourself.
Let’s dive a little deeper and see if things really are that bad.
What are 3D printer fumes?
The smell that comes while you’re 3D printing with PLA, ABS, or any other filament, is due to the release of various chemicals in those filaments. These vapors of multiple chemicals are termed 3D printer fumes. There are two main elements in the 3D printer’s fumes – VOCs and UFPs.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are a mixture of chemicals with a high vapor pressure at room temperatures. The sweet smell of PLA filament, the scent that comes when you melt ABS, or the pleasing scent of fresh paint are all due to the release of VOCs in the air. VOCs are not potentially life-threatening, but long-term exposure to them may cause severe side effects.
Ultrafine particles (UFPs) are particles with a size less than 0.1 μm or 100 nm in diameter. They are notoriously difficult to filter out due to their small size. These particles enter the body through our lungs and cause inflammation in the nasal areas and the eyes.
A 2016 study has demonstrated the excessive release of VOCs when using ABS, Polycarbonate, and Nylon filaments. Similarly, another study on Ultrafine particle emissions highlights 3D printers as high emitters of UFPs.
It is clear that using a 3D printer creates emissions in its environment. But are these dangerous or toxic for your health?
Are fumes from a 3D printer harmful?
The short answer to whether 3D printer fumes are harmful is yes. However, 3D printers can use various types of filament materials, and each material is made up of various compounds. Accordingly, the fumes emitted from these filaments vary as well.
In the same 2016 research paper mentioned above, researchers have thoroughly examined the various VOCs emitted by different filaments.
Let’s look at the most popular plastic filaments in more detail.
ABS filament fumes
Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS) is a commonly used 3D printing filament both by hobbyists and professionals. It is superior in its strength and rigidity and makes an excellent material for practical applications due to its high temperature resistance.
One of the biggest downsides of ABS filaments is that when it melts, it releases Styrene, a potentially harmful and carcinogenic VOC. Long-term exposure to ABS fumes is also related to nausea, headaches, and fatigue. The UFPs released by ABS are also higher compared to printing with other 3D printing filaments (∼2 × 1010 to ∼9 ×1010 particles per minute).
PLA filament fumes
PolyLactic Acid (PLA) is one the most popular 3D printing filaments used in hobbyist 3D printers. It is mostly made up of corn starch, sugar, or maize. These materials are renewable raw materials, and hence PLA is a comparatively sustainable 3D printing plastic.
When you melt PLA filament, it releases Lactide into the atmosphere. This is a non-toxic chemical, however, and is relatively safe to be around. PLA is a low emitter of VOCs and UFPs as compared to other 3D printing filaments. Still, you should be cautious of long-term exposure to PLA fumes as their long-term effects are unknown.
Polyethylene Terephthalate Glycol (PETG) is a 3D printing filament favored by many. It combines the ease of printing with PLA and ABS’s strong chemical and mechanical resistance into a single material.
A recent study on PETG 3D printing noted that PETG releases Ethylbenzene and Styrene, both toxic and carcinogenic chemicals. While we cannot firmly determine the concentration and emission of VOCs and UFPs from this study, it still recommends caution with long-term exposure to PETG fumes.
Nylon is primarily an industrial 3D printing plastic. It offers extreme durability and more wear and tear resistance than ABS filament. That said, it also emits harmful fumes, of which over 90% consists of Caprolactam.
The EPA has not classified Caprolactam as a Carcinogenic substance in its findings; still, long-term exposure can irritate the eyes, nose and cause respiratory disorders in humans. The 2016 study also found out that the emission rate of VOCs while 3D printing Nylon was the highest ∼at 180 μg/min. This suggests that even short-term exposure to these fumes may result in unpleasant side effects of printing with Nylon.
Resin 3D printing fumes
Resin 3D printing doesn’t melt any material but instead cures 3D printer resin using a light source, typically an LCD screen or a laser. The process is notorious for its foul smell, and hence a majority of resin 3D printers come with a tightly sealed enclosure. Some of the best resin printers even include air filtration systems.
A recent study published by Chemical Insights concluded that although the VOCs emitted during resin 3D printing are significantly less than those from FDM printing, there are still potential toxic chemicals being released. Notably, formaldehyde (a carcinogen), acetaldehyde, and methyl isobutyl ketone are being emitted during the resin 3D printing process.
Even though these chemicals were well within the recommended limits, prolonged exposure to this mix of chemicals can irritate susceptible individuals’ eyes and the skin.
How to reduce risks from harmful 3D printer fumes?
We’ve now understood that there are indeed risks associated with 3D printer fumes. While they are not instantly deadly, we still need to take safety and health precautions to enjoy the 3D printing hobby and mitigate any risks. In this section, we’ll go over some of the techniques you can use to enjoy a harmless 3D printing experience without worry.
Ventilate your workspace
The one common thing that we’ve observed in all the studies is that the 3D printers emit a constant stream of VOCs and UFPs when in operation. The risks associated with these fumes have less to do with the chemicals themselves and more to do with their concentration in the air.
A closed room with a single 3D printer can be more harmful than a well-ventilated workspace with multiple 3D printers. The goal is to ensure good ventilation in the workspace using air filters, fans, and windows. This limits the concentration of harmful chemicals in the air and maintains good air quality in the room.
Get a 3D printer enclosure
Many hobby-level 3D printers are of open-frame design. This helps manufacturers save costs associated with an enclosed structure. This does mean that, while in operation, the 3D printer releases toxic fumes directly into the atmosphere.
In the case of enclosed 3D printers, you can avoid this problem. These contain VOCs and UFPs significantly and prevent these compounds from freely spreading to your room. Some enclosed printers even come with a filtration system and fans.
Aside from limiting the transmission of harmful fumes into the workspace, enclosures also reduce any filament smell and printing noises.
But these 3D printers can be expensive, and so many people accept the trade-off that comes with the open-frame design. You can, however, opt for one of the many DIY 3D printer enclosure ideas that are available.
Creality even offers official enclosures for their 3D printers, like the popular Ender 3, that you can upgrade with when you feel ready. It is one of the many popular Ender 3 upgrades or Ender 5 upgrades that you can do to improve your 3D printing experience.
If you are willing to put in the time and effort, you can also build your own DIY 3D printer enclosure. There are plenty of designs available, such as this IKEA Lack enclosure that fits many 3D printers.
Print with safer material
If you don’t want to deal with toxic fumes, the best solution is to avoid using 3D printer filament that gives off these fumes. ABS and PETG are made up of complex toxic chemicals and release high concentrations of VOCs in the air during the printing process. If you don’t strictly need to 3D print with these plastics, it is best to avoid them altogether.
Then we have PLA filament. PLA is great for many reasons, the best of them all is that it is relatively safe and emits little to no harmful VOCs. Instead, what you get is the sweet smell from the melting of the sugars in the PLA. For settings like the classroom, home office, or kids’ bedroom where safety is extra important, PLA filament is the safest option.
Air quality monitor
An air quality monitor is a great way to keep a check on the air quality in your 3D printer’s workspace. Not only can you get safety and health-related information like VOC and CO2 levels, but you can also track humidity levels to make sure you don’t expose your filament to too much moisture.
It can provide you with a sense of relief when it comes to harmful fumes. You don’t have to speculate about the air quality, and you can simply look at the data to see if what you are doing is safe or not. It also helps you to tweak your ventilation and filtration systems to ensure that you are always within a safe zone.
Pick an optimal location for your 3D Printer
Good workspace ventilation and an optimal location for your 3D printer go hand-in-hand. Typically, a garage workshop is an ideal location for your 3D printer. A garage can be well ventilated and has a large volume, keeping VOC and UFP concentrations low. Plus you can choose not to stay in it while the 3D printer is in operation.
If you’re planning on using the printer in your living room or bedroom, an enclosure and a good ventilation system is a must. You must also be careful not to place the 3D printer near the kid’s area. Other than risking damaging your 3D prints, you do not want to risk their long-term health either with PETG or ABS filament.
An air purifier is a great device to filter out unwanted toxic particles from the air. They are a must-have if you’re planning on printing indoors. Not only do these purifiers filter out the harmful VOCs, but they also remove any smell and provide clean air in your workspace. The most crucial element in these purifiers are their filters, so let’s look at the two common types of filters used.
HEPA stands for High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter. The HEPA filter is theoretically designed to remove almost 99.97% of air particles with a size of 0.3 microns. These filters have a MERV rating corresponding to the particle size they can filter out. You should get a HEPA filter with a MERV rating of 17 or above, as these are the effective ones against the 3D printer’s UFPs.
Carbon Filters use activated carbon to filter out particles. Unlike HEPA filters, the carbon filters process the foul-smelling chemicals and essentially eliminate any odors or harmful fumes in the atmosphere.
These filters are primarily used in conjunction with the HEPA filters. The HEPA filters capture any dust, chemicals, or pollen in the air, and the carbon filters process this air to be as clean as possible.
The Levoit Core 300 air purifier is one of the cheapest yet most effective air purifiers available on the market right now. It features both HEPA and carbon filters and can filter out VOCs, UFPs, dust, toxins, smoke, and pet hair. It operates almost silently at a noise level of just 24 dB.
Combine this with a sleek-looking design and a small size; this air purifier is an excellent match for any small-to-medium-sized 3D printing workspace.
In the end, there is no more straightforward solution than getting a window fan. Window fans are a great way to keep the air flowing in the room and ensure sufficient ventilation in the workspace. When mounted in a window opening, the fan ensures that there is sufficient fresh air coming in to prevent VOCs and ultrafine particles from building up in the room.
Are 3D printers safe for pets?
3D printers are generally safe to use around pets. There are no known direct effects on their health. However, some pets may be more vulnerable to certain VOCs and may even experience nauseating symptoms.
There is also the danger of hotends, the heated bed, and moving parts of the 3D printers. Your pet might not be aware of the danger of these components and get injured by being too curious. It is best to take adequate precautions while operating your printer around pets.
Does a 3D printer smell?
While a 3D printer by itself does not smell, it is the plastic filament that smells when melted. The strength of the smell partly depends on the type of filament you use. Printing with ABS creates a strong smell, whereas PLA fumes are barely noticeable.
How to filter 3D printer fumes?
Maintaining sufficient ventilation in your room is a good addition as well. This removes leftover fumes, eliminates foul smells, and carries in fresh air.
3D printing is a great hobby and a fun one at that. However, to enjoy it fully and stress-free, you need to take certain precautions. While we cannot wholly avoid fumes, we can very well limit them and save ourselves from some headaches.
A well-ventilated workspace, an air purifier, and a 3D printer with an enclosure are all things you can integrate into your setup to keep yourself safe from toxic and harmful 3D printing fumes. While you can never avoid all possible risks, these are enough to make a worry-free experience.
When none of these options are realistic for you, then sticking to PLA filament is the safest thing you can do.
If you still have any questions or would like to add something, let us know in the comments below.