Whichever type of 3D printer you’re using, you will notice an odor is given off once the printer is running. The question many people ask is “should I be worried about breathing in these fumes?”
In 2016, a study was carried out by the Illinois Institute of Technology to answer this exact question.
They found that PLA filament is safe when 3D Printed but printing with ABS should only be done in a well-ventilated space.
So, how you protect yourself from harmful fumes should be dependent on – which material you’re using, and what environment you’re using it in.
PLA Filament Fumes
PLA is the safest material to use in your 3D Printer. It is made from entirely natural substances such as maize and sugarcane. This is why it smells so nice and sweet when heated up!
When it is heated, PLA gives off a non-toxic chemical called Lactide.
A lot of people say, if you’re using PLA, you shouldn’t worry about breathing in the fumes.
I disagree with this to a degree, especially where children are concerned. I’m certainly no member of the tinfoil hat brigade, but it makes sense to think what’s natural and what isn’t.
Think about it. If someone set fire to a big bucket of corn and asked you to breathe in the fumes for 8 hours, you’d probably politely decline!
So, I always recommend using a good quality air purifier and using common sense, like not leaving your printer running all night in a sealed bedroom with just your sleeping babies for company.
ABS Filament Fumes
You may have noticed when using ABS filament that there is a noticeable plastic-y smell.
And ABS does indeed give off a toxic chemical when heated – Styrene. In extreme circumstances, this can give you a headache, drowsiness, and feelings of fatigue.
So, it’s very important that if you use ABS in your 3D Printer you have your ventilation sorted.
Everyday Air Pollution
It’s important to put findings like this into some kind of context.
In the modern world, we are unfortunately subjected to all kinds of harmful fumes every day.
There are obvious ones like when walking or cycling in a city. You know you’ll be breathing in auto fumes. But there are other times you might not think about the hazards of what you’re smelling.
When you drive around in your new car, you might love that ‘new car smell’. But it actually smells that way because you’re breathing in a cocktail of chemicals, from PVC to Styrene.
Equally, you might feel at one with nature sat out in the woods singing songs around the campfire. But breathing in that campfire smoke all evening will be depositing VOCs, toluene, and hydrocarbons amongst much more.
The difference with a 3D Printer is that you might be sharing your air with it for a much longer time than a few minutes or hours. You may leave it running all day or all night in the same room that you work and sleep.
Where Do You Use Your 3D Printer?
This is the ideal place to set up your 3D Printer if you plan to use it regularly and often. You can easily leave a window or door open for ventilation and you can leave the space unoccupied for long periods whilst the printer is running. You can also set up a forced ventilation system such as a fan or air filter and not have to worry about any noise affecting the rest of your family.
A separate room that can have its door shut and a window left open is a great spot for keeping your 3D Printer. Ideally, you should leave your 3D Printer running when you’re not in the room, such as overnight or during the day if you’ll be elsewhere.
If you have to be your home office at the same time the 3D printer is working, then you must provide adequate ventilation. This means you should position the printer close to a window that can remain open whilst you’re in the room. Or you should buy an air purifier such as these:
Living Room/Family Room
If your 3D Printer is for the whole family to use then you may well site it in a room that everyone uses. Unfortunately, this means there will often be people sharing the same space when the printer is on.
If this is your situation, I strongly recommend you use a room air purifier that will filter out all the particles and chemicals your 3D printer gives off.
The bedroom is an obvious place to put your 3D Printer, especially if your child or teenager is the main user.
Unfortunately, this is the least favorable place to keep it as it is essential that you have a good method of ventilation at all times. And especially so if you want to leave the printer running all night.
The easiest and cheapest is to open a window! However, you need to be honest with yourself. Will you leave the window open at night if you leave the 3D Printer running? Will you open the window even if it’s cold out? What if it lets bugs in and the screen’s torn?
Added to that, 3D Printers can be a bit picky about their ambient temperatures. If an open window makes the room temperature or the temperature near the printer fluctuate then you could easily affect the quality of your prints and even fail some.
This is the method I use for my 3D Printers and is the method I recommend. If you live in an apartment then an Air Purifier is almost essential.
When you’re printing in ABS you normally smell it as you enter the room, but with an air purifier running you won’t detect a scent at all.
What you need to get is an air purifier that has HEPA filtration and activated Charcoal. This ensures that all the microscopic particles are filtered, as well as the chemical compounds such as VOCs.
If you look at this list of pollutants the activated charcoal absorbs, you’ll see that both Lactic Acid and Styrene are successfully filtered out making activated charcoal a very effective filter medium for 3D Printers. HEPA filtration means particles as small as 0.3 micrometers.
The great benefit of Air Purifiers is you can turn them on and off to save energy, so if you’re not going to be in the room most of the day you can leave your printer running and then just turn the purifier on a few hours before you need to.
The other benefit is they are amazing at purifying other smells. From stinky eggs to smelly pets, they completely neutralize odors.
This can take the form of a simple window mounted system right through to full on industrial extraction of the kind you might have in a spray booth.
In either case, you need to make sure the system is extracting the right amount of air and that it’s extracting air that has been contaminated, i.e. site it above and near to the 3D Printer.
3D Printer Enclosure
Completely enclosing your 3D Printer in a case and filtering all the air that comes out of that enclosure is one of the safest and most efficient ways to protect yourself from any harmful fumes. Unfortunately, enclosures are a recent invention and there aren’t many available to buy yet.
BuzzBox is my favorite enclosure. It can fit most popular 3D Printers that are under H12″xW16″xD11″ in size such as the Monoprice Select Mini and has some very handy design features such as an easy to open magnetic latch door, a filament spool holder and tool holders.
The filtration system itself is a passive system, in other words, there is no fan to force flow, instead the heat produced by the printer is used to convect flow out of the enclosure. This is similar to the ventilation systems used in modern buildings and makes for a reliable system without introducing additional fan noise.
The other great benefit of a 3D Printer Enclosure is that it provides a stable environment for your prints. This can drastically improve the reliability and consistency of your prints by making them less susceptible to room temperature and humidity changes.
3D Printer With Build In Filtration
Surprisingly there are only a couple of 3D Printers available that come with a built-in filtration system as standard. Of these only the UP BOX+ has true HEPA filtration which is necessary to filter our the smallest particles.
The current trend is for 3D Printers to be less industrial and more the type of tech that sits on your office desk. So I think and hope it is inevitable that we will start to see more printers with this type of built-in filtration.
I hope my article has made you think about what you may be breathing in when using your 3D Printer. I have no intention to scare anyone away from the exciting world of 3D Printing.
Just please take a little care and common sense and think about investing in one of the options above. If you’re in any doubt I recommend getting an air purifier, as it will work with any 3D Printer setup.
Thanks for reading!