Volatile compounds? 3D printing has a serious safety problem

Dangerous emissions are the dirty little secret of the ballooning 3D printing industry.

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It's looking more and more certain that 3D printing has a serious safety problem. Though largely overlooked in the tech press, the problem is pervasive and could impact millions of students, patients, and employees who work in non-industrial settings that lack controlled environments.  

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That's according to a two-year study by UL Chemical Safety and Georgia Institute of Technology, which shows that 3D printers emit airborne nanoparticles and volatile organic compounds that can cause cardiovascular and pulmonary issues. The UL/Georgia Tech study details the alarming presence of more than 200 volatile compounds that are detected in environments where a 3D printer is in use, including known irritants and carcinogens. 

Even supposedly safe 3D printers equipped with HEPA filters aren't immune. According to the report, HEPA-equipped machines don't solve the problem of emissions and may even amplify it. 

Millions of people use 3D printers today. School 3D printing use alone has increased 3x in two years as the $13 billion 3D printing industry grows at over 21% annually. But 3D printing safety is a growing concern to patients in hospitals where 3D printers are used, as well to students and employees in offices and factories.

"The industry has looked the other way on topics like toxic emissions, hazardous chemicals and powders because it was being managed well by expert users, who placed 3D printers in separate rooms away from users, or in well-ventilated settings," says Andy Kalambi, president and CEO, RIZE, Inc., an additive manufacturing company. "As non-experts adopt the technology, safety and ease of use will be paramount considerations."

Going forward, non-industrial 3D printing consumers are likely to pay greater attention to emissions. That could mean better ventilating spaces where equipment is used, but it will likely also lead consumers to seek out certified safe products.

The good news is that certifications are out there, but the bad news is that very few certified safe consumer 3D printers exist at the moment. Boston-based RIZE, Inc., an additive manufacturing company dedicated to sustainable innovation, just announced that it's become the first in the 3D printing industry to receive UL 2904 Certification with its RIZE One Industrial 3D printer and associated filament, the physical medium used in printing. 

"This certification is based on the new UL 2904 Method for Testing and Assessing Particle and Chemical Emissions from 3D Printers," according to a RIZE spokesperson. "The certification ushers in a new era of safety and sustainability that will expand the adoption of additive manufacturing."

It's likely other manufacturers and filament providers are going to follow RIZE's lead, particularly as the issue of unsafe emissions gains more attention. In the meantime, it's a good idea for hobbyists and makers to do their research and ensure their workspace is well-ventilated. 

For those interested in learning more about proper ventilation, this guide should get you started.