In the past, helping your child create products was impossible outside of craft projects, artwork and sewing. Today, the advent of 3D printer technology means you can build your child an amazing maker space without spending thousands of dollars. This is a great holiday gift that can spark your child’s imagination and ignite an amazing career, but you may be surprised to know that these printers can be hazardous for your child’s health. It’s important to understand the dangers of 3D printers and what you need to know to keep your family safe.
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Dangers of 3D Printers
There are only a few studies on 3D printer safety, but the data to date is concerning. In 2016, a study showed that 3D printing pollutes your space with dangerous and carcinogenic particles, which were discovered in the air and floor after several models were tested. The particles were so fine that they bypassed nose hairs, which typically strain out harmful particles. That means your child may be breathing in harmful toxins while printing. Many printers some kind of particles or gases, depending on the printing material used. Let’s look at what these printers emit
The study tested most of the different materials that you can use to create different items. Here are those results:
Printing Material: ABS Filament
One of the materials you can use is called ABS. This is a common filament choice for printing. Unfortunately, the study showed that across different machines, this material emitted styrene, which is a type of volatile organic compounds (VOC). According to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, this particle is a known hazard that can cause skin, eye and upper respiratory irritations, possibly gastrointestinal effects. Prolonged exposure can impact the central nervous system (depression, headache, fatigue and minor kidney problems). The International Agency for Research on Cancer has labeled Styrene as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
ABS operates at a higher heat than other printing materials, which contributes to the fact that it generates both toxic gas and “high concentrations of nanoparticle aerosol.” Of all the printing materials tested, ABS emitted the highest level of these tiny but dangerous particles and VOCs.
Printing Materials: Nylon, PCTPE, Laybrick, and Laywood
There are many other choices for printing materials that were tested in the study as well. This group emitted styrene as well, less than ABS, but they also emitted another particle called caprolactam. While not known to be known to be especially toxic or carcinogenic, it can cause burning and irritation to eyes, nose, throat and skin, as well more severe effects from prolonged exposure, according to the EPA. Nylon had the highest levels of this particle. PCTPE also had very high rates of VOCs and the nanoparticles.
Recommended Printing Material: PLA
In the study, the safest material results came from PLA, which emitted minimal toxic particles. The main thing it gave off was lactic acid, which is not toxic. When choosing printing material, stick to PLA.
Unfortunately, keeping your family safe around a 3D printer is a bit more complicated than just choosing the right printing material. All 3D printers give off fumes when they are heated. You again need to consider how toxic the printing material is:
- ABS is made from petroleum and some studies have shown the fumes to be toxic.
- PLA is actually a natural product, frequently made from cornstarch or sugar cane. It also prints with lower heat than ABS, and so the fumes emitted are less harmful than for ABS.
However, you can also do more to protect your family by making sure those emissions are contained and/ or vented. 3D printers are now available with cases that enclose the printer to protect people from these fumes, while brands are also developing technology to filter and prevent fumes. Some professional brands do exist that address this but they are probably too costly for your typical Christmas gift.
Another area of concern is that the brass nozzles typically used on 3D printers contain trace amounts of lead. Naturally, we don’t want any amount of lead around our kids – or in any food containers they might be creating. That said, brass is more conductive to heat, which means you may get a better product using brass than stainless steel.
3D Printers and Kitchen Items
If your budding maker wants to create mugs, dishes, bowls and other food containers or holders, you need to take special precautions to avoid the dangers of 3D printers on your food. First of all, while PLA sounds like it’s completely natural, some manufacturers put in unhealthy additives. Additionally, the 3D printing process can have problems of its own:
- Cracks and splits in your creations that might be too small to see can have hide unsafe bacteria.
- The tiny particles we discussed earlier can build up on the item itself.
- The printing material is not food safe.
- Unsafe printer parts may contaminate the final product.
Read the report, “12 Vital Facts About Safe Food Safe 3D Printing” to learn what in depth about this particular type of 3D printing.
What To Look For In a 3D Printer
With all this in mind, this is what you should look for in a 3D printer for your child:
- Uses PLA for printing.
- Comes with or can be put in a protecting casing while printing. Most child-friendly ones do having casings now.
- Has stainless steel nozzles, or nozzles can be changed out. Stainless or hardened steel is safer than brass but may not work as well. However, you may want to keep steel nozzles on hand if you are making products that will come in contact with food.
Some of the safest affordable 3d printer brands include:
- FlashForge Finder ($400)
- New Matter MOD-t 3D Printer ($200)
- XYZprinting makes 3 that are great for kids:
- da Vinci Jr. 1.0 ($200)
- da Vinci Jr. 1.0 3 in 1 Printer, Scanner and Engraver ($300-$500)
- da Vinci Jr. miniMaker ($150-$300)
- da Vinci Jr. 1.0 ($200)
- Alpha ToyBox Printer ($400)
Final Tips for 3D Printer Safety
While the technology is moving forward to make sure that junior makers have the safest 3D printing technology, there are some extra precautions you should take as well to safeguard your child:
- Keep the printer in its enclosure when printing.
- Also put the printer in a well-ventilated workspace, so you can air out the particles.
- You may want to have an air filter for ultra find particles or use a HEPA vacuum (or do both) to clear the area of any stray particles, in addition plants that can detox your air.
- Replace those brass nozzles when creating items that hold food. You may want to use an FDA compliant PLA filament, which is your best chance of crafting a food grade piece.
- Do not put items that hold food in the dishwasher or near any high beat, but simply wash in lukewarm water with soap.
- Stick to PLA filaments and watch out for any additives the brand puts in this “natural” printing material.
- Never use food as a printing material. There are too many toxic variables to create anything that is safe to eat.
The future of this technology looks very exciting and is getting safer – and more affordable every year. 3D printing can help get our kids on the road to becoming engineers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs. Let’s get them there safely!