Rising Popularity of 3D Printers and Health Risks [Transcript]

01/14/2019 | By Sarah Kloepple, Christoph Trappe

3D desktop printers are growing in popularity, from companies to schools to personal use. But do they pose a health risk? A recent study conducted by Georgia Tech and UL Chemical Safety says they do let off Volatile Organic Compounds that can affect IAQ and the health of the users. 

Find out what those health implications are and some tips to make this emerging technology safer.

Transcript starts below:

Christoph: Hello everyone. Christoph Trappe here, chief content engagement director with buildings.com for another episode of our podcast. And today I’m joined by Sarah Kloepple, one of our staff writers. Sarah, thanks for joining us.

Sarah: Yeah. Thanks, Christoph.

Christoph: Today’s topic is 3D printers. Now before we jump in, my experience, you know, I actually have been photographed I guess, or scanned is probably the better terminology, for a 3D photo of myself. And it was super weird. They put you in this big box and they just scan you. It’s almost like one of those TSA machines. And then you can print yourself. I never did it. I just took the 3D video and put it on my website or something like that.

But that’s my only experience with 3D printing. So, Sarah, what’s yours?

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BUILDINGS Podcast Topic 3D Printers

Based off a research report conducted by Georgia Tech and UL Chemical Safety, Sarah Kloepple and Christoph Trappe chat about the rising popularity of 3D printers for businesses, schools and personal use.

They discuss topics like the health risks associated with these printers as well as some tips to keep everyone safe.

Sarah: Yeah. So, I haven’t had much. When I think about 3D printers, I think of those crazy medical advancements that they’re helping with, like printing organs and cartilage and groundbreaking stuff like that.

But I did know someone who had them in their room. I think that was the first time I’ve seen one in person. And it wasn’t like…

Christoph: And they just used it for what? Like, personal use?

Sarah: Yeah. So, it wasn’t some giant machine. It was just able to fit in his average-sized room pretty comfortably. He’s an engineer, so he’s using it for fun. You can make little figurines and you can program it to drill our name into a piece of wood, fun stuff like that. Yeah. I just thought it was pretty interesting that it was for personal use and it was small enough to put in his room.

Christoph: That’s very interesting. And so, late last year, you did a story that’s of interest to our audience, right, building owners and facility managers, on health implications when it comes to 3D printers.

Sarah: Right. So, the BUILDINGS team, we basically saw this report that was conducted by Georgia Tech and UL Chemical Safety - and they’re kind of just a non-profit that does scientific research. And they do a lot of stuff with products and testing products for safety and making sure they’re okay for office and learning environments.

So, we just thought it was interesting and worth doing a story on because no big study like this has really been done on 3D printers and how they’re affecting our indoor air quality.

Christoph: And how did you come across this story?

Sarah: Just how we usually do. We were looking in the news and we see what people are talking about and 3D printers just came up. And this report had just been released, so we decided to jump on it and reach out to UL Chemical Safety, who kind of ran point on it.

Who Uses 3D Printers?

Christoph: Very interesting. And the use of 3D printers, how common is it? Who uses them? How many people? What’s the - I barely have a regular printer in my room and in my office, I don’t have any printers. In fact, I don’t even know how to print. But anyway, we won’t say that. We’ll cut that out. Ha ha - just kidding.

But how common is it? Who uses them?

[Podcast and transcript based off of this article: Health Implications and Safety Tips for Desktop 3D Printing]

Sarah: So, I think the big thing to point out with this story is kind of how accessible these 3D printers are now. The industry has seen just a crazy amount of growth. I think in the article, I cited Forbes and I said that the industry is now at like seven billion.

So, you can get a desktop 3D printer now for as cheap as like $200. So, you’re seeing them in more accessible settings. Not just the giant warehouses and medical landscape and big industrial places.

We’re seeing them in places like offices, schools, libraries and as I mentioned, even in people’s homes and rooms. That just means that it’s more important than ever for facilities managers who do have one of these machines in their facility or maybe even a tenant is considering getting one. It’s important to pay attention to what’s interacting with their indoor air quality.

What Do People Use 3D Printers For?

Christoph: And so, before we get into the results and the things people should be aware of, what’s a use-case in a facility? How would people use them? Or is it just really like how you use a regular printer today? What’s the use-case scenario?

Sarah: Yeah. So, in schools, they were using it for scientific demonstrations and creative fun stuff. If you were to see it in an office, it might be a company who is using them to make models or blueprints.

Christoph: Okay. That’s good to know. What did the research find? What are the health implications? Or what are the things people need to be aware of?

Are 3D Printers Hazardous to Health and IAQ?

Sarah: Some of it’s a little worrying. Basically, they found out what they had suspected was that you shouldn’t breathe this stuff in for a long time. And by stuff, I mean the emissions. So, the really fine particles that 3D printers give off when they’re operating or printing. they give off this complex mixture of those really fine particles and then what is called Volatile Organic Compounds, which is not good if you breathe them in for a long time.

What I thought was interesting was I talked to Marilyn Black at UL Chemical Safety and she’s obviously done a lot of research on products and how they’re interacting with our indoor environments. And she told me, “We haven’t seen anything quite like that.”

So, yeah. It was pretty worrying. But there are factors for how much emission these machines give off. It’ll depend on the brand of the machine and things like temperature of the machine that’ll affect how much emissions.

Difference Between Laser Printers and 3D Printers

Christoph: So, when we’re talking about emissions, so I just had my car taken in for some service the other day. And it was something about the emission. I mean that - I’m thinking of my car when I hear you say “emissions” and other machinery like that, I guess. Other printers don’t have that same problem, right? Why is it - or do they?

Sarah: Definitely not to the extent of 3D printers. Like a regular, like you were talking about, a regular laser printer that you would have on your desk at home or something is not going to give out as many emissions as a 3D printer. And that’s because, you know, a printer, it’ll print out something and it takes a couple seconds. Even if you’re printing a couple of pages, it might take a couple of minutes.

But 3D printers, their average run time is four hours. So, that’s four hours that’s giving off these emissions. That can even stretch to eight hours or even they could run them overnight. So, yeah. It’s definitely this chronic exposure that people are experiencing with 3D printers. It’s not like a brief exposure of a laser printer. that’s why it’s really important to keep an eye on.

Christoph: And so interesting. And they’re running that long because it takes that long to print whatever they’re printing in 3D? Or why is it such a long timeframe?

Sarah: Yeah. Correct. it’s taking this thermal energy, melting something down and reprinting it into something in 3D form. it’s not going to take a couple seconds to print - like it would to print out a piece of paper.

Christoph: I can just see myself standing in front of myself waiting. Ha. Okay.

Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. Now that’s what they’re finding people are doing. Even children are really prone to doing that, you know, hovering and trying to get all the action. But something you should definitely not do is hover for four hours over one of these.

Tips to Keep Occupants Safe Around 3D Printers

Christoph: The 3D blueprint of myself is caught in the queue. Oh, my goodness. It’s so interesting, Sarah. Thank you for sharing that. And what kind of tips do we have for people who have these printers and to make sure they’re safe?

Sarah: Yeah. So, there are a couple. Facilities managers can even print this out and display them near the printers so that their occupants can use them safely. In the actual article on Buildings.com, there’s a graphic that you can print out from UL Chemical Safety that’ll have these on there.

[Related: 5 Air Purifying Indoor Plants]

Yeah. The number one thing is to just make sure it’s in a well-ventilated space, somewhere where fresh air can come in and leave, just so it can remove the air pollution. It’s recommended you get a local exhaust to put over the machine. That’s just something that will remove - again, the air pollution.

Three, like I said, don’t hover over the machines, and pay attention to children who do that.

Four, run the machines at their default temperature. Don’t turn it up to make the process go faster. Their research shows that will just produce more of these harmful chemicals. So, it’s recommended even that you set it on the lower end of its temperature.

Christoph: And that is very important for people like me, right, who are always in a rush. Don’t mess with the temperature.

Sarah: Exactly. Yeah. So, just keep it how it should be and maybe even a little bit lower than that. Better to be safe than sorry.

And then the last tip, look for printers that are verified for having low emissions. You’re seeing this become more common now in the market where these desktop 3D printers are being marketed as machines that have low emissions. So, make sure you’re paying attention to that.

Those are the main tips we recommend.

Christoph: Very interesting. So, are you totally tempted to get a 3D printer now?

Sarah: I mean they’re really cool and if you look at the desktop ones that can fit on your desk, yeah, you could find some cool stuff to do with it. But yeah. I’m not sure what I would do with it.

Christoph: Right. Absolutely.

Sarah: But it’d be cool to just say you have one, you know?

Christoph: Well, but $200 just to say that - is that lowest price we’ve seen so far?

Sarah: Yeah, I mean from what I’ve seen. I did some research and yeah, it was upper $180 I think those were the cheapest ones.

Christoph: I bet you that’s going to come down too. Recently, what we did is we bought that virtual reality camera that we’re now using here and there, virtual reality and 360. And like a year ago, you couldn’t even afford that. And the one we bought, it was $95. I mean that’s unbelievable.

So, I’m sure that technology will advance, the cost will come down. I mean that’s the cycle we’re in.

None the less, we want people to be safe. So, make sure you follow the tips. What else do we have to share about 3D printers?

Sarah: I think those are just the important points to hit home. These machines are obviously super cool, and people are doing amazing things with them, probably stuff that would blow our minds. But they’re also being used in school, for fun, in companies and in offices. And they’re only going to become more popular and accessible, like we were just saying.

So, yeah. Just make sure people in your building know how to interact with them safely.

Christoph: Fantastic. Thank you for joining us, Sarah. Everyone, thanks for listening to another episode of our BUILDINGS Podcast. I was joined by Sarah Kloepple, one of our staff writers. And hopefully you enjoy the podcast and we’ll be sure to share a link in the transcript as well to the previous article on this topic.

Thanks everyone.

Sarah: Awesome. Yeah, thanks.


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