3D printers have seen a massive boost in popularity in the last few years, but little is discussed about the required safety precautions.
3D printers use primarily ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) and PLA (Polylactic acid) to create the printed product.
During the printing process, low levels of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and UFP (ultrafine particles) are released into the air.
Some of the chemicals released by the plastic include styrene, lactide, and caprolactam. Styrene has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as potentially carcinogenic to humans. The other 2 compounds are not classified as carcinogenic but it is not recommended to inhale or ingest large quantities.
This suggests that if you do not ventilate your 3D printer correctly it could lead to long-term health implications for you and others around you. Luckily, these can be near enough completely prevented through the use of a protective and effective ventilation system.
PLA v ABS
PLA is a more environmentally friendly printing material. It releases fewer toxic chemicals than ABS filaments and as such, can be ventilated with less restriction. A simplistic air purification system or just an open window should be sufficient for venting PLA fumes.
PLA is not as refined as ABS and cannot be used for intricate and detailed projects, although it is ideal for beginners. When working with PLA you will need to reduce the number of projects and the number of hours spent printing.
It is advised to have 4 air changes per hour in the area you are printing with PLA filaments.
ABS is considered to be more dangerous as it releases more harmful VOCs, in particular styrene. You should only really print using ABS filaments in a large and well-ventilated area. This reduces the risk of VOCs building to harmful levels.
Ideally, ABS filaments should only be used in areas that have a dedicated exhaust system, one pass air, or at least 6 total air changes per hour. The optimal location for a 3D printer to be used with ABS filaments is underneath a fume hood.
These are the UFPs that are released when the plastic is solidifying. They tend to be smaller than 100 nanometers - for scale, a piece of paper is 100,000 nanometers thick.
The teeny size of these particles is where their danger lies. As they are so small they are easy to inhale and enter our respiratory systems. Here, they can build up and over time your lung tissue will be highly exposed to the particles which can lead to serious damage.
They can also embed deeply into tissues, leading to suggestions that they can cause cardiovascular problems too.
These are characterized by the acrylic fumes you smell when plastic is printing. These are primarily released when you are working with ABS filaments.
Inhaling these fumes can lead to short-term health issues such as irritation in your eyes, throat, and nose, nausea, dizziness, and skin problems. An extended exposure can lead to cancer and organ damage.
One of the best places to store and use your 3D printer is in your workshop or garage. These tend to be separate from your home, reducing the number of fumes that can enter your living space.
You can leave a door or window open for a long time without dropping the temperature in your home, plus there will be a huge reduction in noise levels while the printer is in operation.
This is exactly what it sounds like. You can purchase enclosed machines or create your own enclosure for your printer. They should be sealed to be as airtight as possible. This traps the VOCs and UFPs in the printer area, protecting you and the rest of the room from exposure.
When you take into account the size of these particles, it becomes obvious that the enclosure is unlikely to protect you entirely. There will always be small gaps from which these particulates can seep out, but the spread of them is greatly slowed by the presence of an enclosure.
Another bonus to using an enclosure is that the 3D printer will have constant temperature and humidity levels. This will ensure a uniform finish on your printed product. This also reduces the risk of your printer failing mid-print.
These filters will be located inside the enclosure and will absorb a great deal, if not all, of the particulate matter released. You should consider the type of filament you are intending to use with your 3D printer before purchasing a filter.
Different types of filters are suitable for different types of filament and emissions. There are a large number of filter options available on the market, or you can DIY one if you’re on more of a budget.
There are 2 main types of filters - HEPA and activated carbon filters. HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air. These should have MERV ratings, standing for minimum efficiency reporting value. This is a measure of how well the filter prevents dust and other particles from passing into the air stream.
The higher the MERV rating, the better the filter is. For 3D printing, you will need a filter with a MERV rating of at least 17.
HEPA filters push the air through a fine mesh. This traps any ultrafine particles and prevents them from entering the room’s air supply, protecting you. They have an efficiency of a 99.97% reduction in UFPs when under standard operating conditions.
That being said, they are only shown to effectively capture particles of .3 micrometer particles - the largest sized particles produced by a 3D printer. Higher quality HEPA filters are capable of capturing smaller particles, but a filter alone will not be sufficient to keep yourself safe.
Activated carbon filters are designed to protect VOCs from being released into the room. To keep yourself adequately safe, you should have both types of filters installed in the vicinity of your 3D printer.
There will likely be instructions in your printer’s owner’s manual as to where the filter should be installed in the enclosure.
Different positionings will impact the effectiveness of the filter so please seek advice where necessary. This will also vary according to the type of filter and the volume of air passing through it.
These are super useful if your home does not have a lot of excess space for storing and using your 3D printer. Your purifier should include both of the filter types mentioned above to ensure maximum efficiency.
You can switch these purifiers on and off on demand. They do not just absorb the fumes from the printer, but any contaminants and particulate matter in the air. If you have pets, this will help reduce their smells too.
You will have to work out the correct size of air purifier that you need. Air purifiers should have a CADR number on the side. This stands for the clean air delivery rate and is a measure of how many cubic feet of air the purifier can clean per hour.
You should measure 2 of the walls in the room you plan to install your 3D printer in. Multiply these values to get a figure for the total square footage of the room. This figure is what you should look out for in the CADR. For instance, if your room is 300 square feet, you will need a CADR of 300 square feet.
There are many different types and sizes of air extractors available. You will need to install your chosen extractor directly above the 3D printer for maximum impact.
They work by sucking in heated air from around the 3D printer. This air is then passed through a filter to remove the harmful particulates.
It is then exchanged with cool air from the outside of a room. This is done through the use of a system of fans and suction pipes. This is not ideal to run while you are in the middle of a printing operation.
The air that recirculates is much cooler than the extracted air. Introducing cooler air affects the print quality of the plastic and can warp or distort the printed project.
Venting the Fumes
You can consider venting the fumes released by the printer into the outside world. This is not the best option by a long shot and is not recommended as an effective ventilation system.
You can open up a vent to the outdoors and allow the printing area to expel the fumes here. This means that the print area is at a lower temperature. This can lead to warping and other imperfections in your printed product as the reduced heat diminishes the print quality.
Alternatively, you can simply open a window near your printer. Providing the temperature is not too hot or cold, this will not be detrimental to the finished print quality.
We recommend placing an electric fan on the side of the printer not next to the window. This air stream will force the VOCs and UFPs out of the open window instead of allowing them to circulate around your home.
How can you ventilate a resin 3D printer?
To do this effectively, you will need to create a negative pressure enclosure. This sends air out of the enclosure into an external space. Resin fumes are known to be harmful to human health with extended exposure.
You will need an 8-foot duct tube, 2 hose clamps, and an inline duct fan. You will also need to create an adaptor to connect the duct tube to the vent on the back of your printer.
Open the vent panel at the back of the printer and remove the cover. Connect your custom adaptor and screw to secure in place.
Connect one hose clamp to one end of the duct tube. Push this onto the adaptor on the back of the printer, and tighten the hose clamp to secure all of the elements in place. There should be no wiggle room but do not over-tighten as this could cause your custom adaptor to crack.
Cut the hose to a suitable length to reach from your printer to the venting space. Connect the other hose clamp to the duct tube and connect the inline duct fan. The direction of airflow should be facing away from your printer. Screw into place.