MCLEAN, Va. — 3D printers are not only popular, they are becoming increasingly common sights in workplaces, schools, and even homes. A new study warns this widespread use may also be putting more and more people at risk of health problems. Researchers say 3D printers emit tiny particles that can cause lung damage and may be toxic to humans.
Financial experts estimate the global 3D printing market is worth just under $12 billion as of 2019. They expect that number is expand even further as more people buy the devices for their personal use.
As manufacturers ramp up 3D printing, more schools and hospitals make use of these products, and companies use printers to make face shields during the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts are concerned about the impact on air quality and public health.
Hidden danger in 3D printers
The devices work by manipulating thermoplastics, metals, nanomaterials, and polymers over several hours. During this time, the printer creates a range of chemical by-products. In one study, researchers uncovered that the emitted particles can cause damage to human lung cells. In a separate report, analysis of a simulation model revealed children under the age of nine are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals.
“To date, the general public has little awareness of possible exposures to 3D printer emissions,” Dr. Peter Byrley of the Environmental Protection Agency says in a media release. “A potential societal benefit of this research is to increase public awareness of 3D printer emissions, and of the possibly higher susceptibility of children.”
Another study of 3D printing finds that with more products becoming available at cheaper costs, 3D printers are contributing to the mass of plastic producers polluting the planet.
Plastic contamination is a growing problem
Doctoral student Joana Marie Sipe of Duke University developed a machine that can measure the amount of plastic nanoparticles coming off of items like water bottles. From there, researchers fed the particles to fish to see how much organ damage the plastic contamination causes.
This measurement, the Matrix Release Factor, could then determine the amount of plastic and nanoparticles released when someone chews a product or when plastics break down in the ocean.
“This research can help set regulations on how much nanomaterial fillers can be added to particular consumer products, based on their MRF value,” Sipe says. “The data can help determine how much plastic and/or nano-filled products release contaminants into the environment or the human body.”
The findings were presented at the Exposure and Risk Assessment of 3D Printing and Emerging Materials symposium at the 2020 Society for Risk Analysis virtual Annual Meeting.
SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.