Laser printers, especially those from HP, have received some fairly alarming press lately. It seems that emissions from these printers can potentially have negative health effects, according to an article published in Environmental Science and Technology. While a small body of literature has accumulated over the years suggesting that laser printers can emit benzene and other toxins, this is the first publication to catch the public's imagination.
If you read the actual article (or HP's response, for that matter), it's clear that a lot of questions remain about the actual harm that can come from these emissions as well as the exact nature of the emissions themselves. The real question for those of us in Ed Tech, though, is what do we tell parents and teachers? You know that someone is going to ask. Parents have a right to be concerned for their kids' safety and most of them only have inkjets at home; their children's only real exposure to laser printers tends to be at school, where they spend several hours a day, 180 days per year.
I for one will not be trading in my laserjets for inkjets anytime soon. However, there are a few things we can do to allay concerns and to make a reasonable response to concerned parents and staff. The first is to confine laser printers to well-ventilated, open areas. Large libraries and media centers and air-conditioned computer labs are probably good choices and provide a degree of mitigation, regardless of the real risk (which remains up in the air, no pun intended). This is something easy to point out to parents and is good practice anyway until the risks are better-understood.
Similarly, when the laser printers can't be confined to the most ideal areas, they should be in areas of relatively low utilization. For example, if a special education teacher needs a laser printer in a classroom for printing IEPs, large documents should still be sent to printers in better-ventilated rooms. Since the largest and most efficient printers will most likely be located in such areas anyway, this makes sense from an economic perspective as well.
So what do we tell worried parents? We tell them that we've taken reasonable measures to keep kids safe from what appears to be a fairly low-level risk. We also tell them that we will keep them updated and adjust our practices as real concrete data become available. Unfortunately, it appears that concrete data are fairly elusive for the foreseeable future.