3D Printing - What are VOCs?

Last Updated: June 21ST, 2021

Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs) within the domain of additive manufacturing are pollutants released from the manufacturing material (filament, resin, powder, and etc). These are the same chemicals released from automobile emissions, paint, solvents, adhesives, insulation, furniture, incense, and YES even the new car smell.

Quick Facts:

  • VOCs are heavier than air and sink to the floor
  • Concentrated exposure can cause mild symptoms but some will increase cancer risk
  • Printing at higher temperatures emits more VOCs and particulates
  • Using an enclosure decreases the particulate emission rate but increases VOC emission rates
  • SLA resin is detrimental to the environment and should be regarded as toxic waste
  • The exact health risks associated with SLA resin are not known due to proprietary formulas and the lack of research regarding safety

Example - FormaldehydeFormaldehyde StructureBoiling Point: -6° F (-21° C)    Gaseous at Standard Atmosphere

Formaldehyde is naturally produced in all living organisms and is used in countless consumer products. It is extensively regulated and typical exposure to the chemical is well within safety limits. However, 3D Printing is a manufacturing process and exposure levels are increased. Non-consistent use of entry level filaments with a single printer is unlikely to lead to the onset of symptoms in regards to formaldehyde emissions. Poor ventilation, multiple printers, industrial filaments, close proximity, and continuous use are factors that can contribute to the onset of symptoms.

Formaldehyde Concentration
mg/m3
Identifier
0.00125 Human Breath
0.0025 Outside Air
0.01 Chronic (lifetime exposure >364 days) Minimal Risk Level (MRL) by CDC
0.025 Indoor Air
0.0375 Intermediate (lifetime exposure 15-364 days) MRL by CDC
0.05 Acute (lifetime exposure 1-14 days) MRL by CDC
0.03-0.09 Level in 100ft2 Room - Internal Tests on Filaments (PLA/PETG/ABS)
0.125 Onset of Respiratory Irritation by OSHA
0.191 Peak Level Inside Chamber With PLA
0.625 Potential Cancer Hazard by OSHA
1.25 Jet Exhaust
11.25 Car Exhaust

FFF/FDM Risks

Experimental data is compiled to provide a sense of the safety regarding specific filaments. Very few research studies have been dedicated towards determining the overall safety of additive manufacturing, and the ones that have been conducted are typically focused on entry level materials. More research will be needed on exotic materials to determine their safety.

Common VOCs in Entry Level 3D Filaments1
Emitted Substance Example Filaments2 Emission Rate
mg/min
Average Level
mg/m3
Peak Level
mg/m3
Tolerable Exposure Levels
24 Hours
Tolerable Exposure Levels
4 Hours
Notes3
Caprolactam Nylon, ABS, PC, PETG 0.183 1.102 3.078 0.3 0.3 Irritant
Styrene ABS, HIPS 0.113 0.681 2.479 0.25 1.5 Irritant/Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen
Tetrachloroethylene PLA, ABS, PC 0.0055 0.03 0.13 0.01 0.06 Reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen
Formaldehyde PLA, ABS 0.191 0.1 0.1 Irritant/Known to be a human carcinogen
Methyl Methacrylate PLA 0.0065 0.039 0.29 0.11 0.11 Irritant
Lactide PLA 0.005 0.03 0.089 0.3

1Danish Environmental Protection Agency; Risk Assessment of 3D Printers and 3D Printed Products
2Stephens B, Crain N, Pouzet C, Zhao D, Azimi P; Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volative Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop 3D Printers with Multiple Filaments
3US Department of Health and Human Services, National Toxicology Program; 14th Report on Carcinogens

Example Filament Comparisons to PLA
Filament Particulate Generation Rate Example Emissions
PLA 1x Methyl Methacrylate
PC 4400x Toluene
PETT 100x Caprolactam, Styrene
Flexibles (ie: TPU) 3.5x Toluene, Phenol
Colorfabb HT
1100x 2,4,4-Trimethyl-2-Pentene
BambooFill
0.5x Methyl Methacrylate
Nylon Co-polymers
8x Caprolactam

SLA Risks

The primary SLA dangers involve inhalation and skin contact. The issue of skin sensitization is well known throughout the industry, and it is a symptom that is easily diagnoseable. For fumes, concentrated short term exposure results in only mild symptoms such as dizziness, headaches, and throat irritation. The long-term effects are unknown.

Take Action

CDC Hierarchy of Controls
Source: CDC/NIOSH - Does not imply endorsement by the CDC
https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/hierarchy/default.html
4D Filtration Hierarchy of Controls
Sources
  • http://www.rjchase.com/ptfe_handbook.pdf
  • https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2020-115/pdfs/2020-115.pdf?id=10.26616/NIOSHPUB2020115
  • http://built-envi.com/portfolio/ultrafine-particle-emissions-from-3d-printers/
  • https://formaldehyde.americanchemistry.com/Formaldehyde-Occurs-Naturally-and-Is-All-Around-Us.pdf
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK138711/
  • https://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/formaldehyde-factsheet.html
  • https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/Formaldehyde#datasheet=LCSS
  • https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/mrls/mrllist.asp#39tag
  • https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp111-c2.pdf
  • https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/formaldehyde/formaldehyde-fact-sheet
  • https://www.chemicalsafetyfacts.org/formaldehyde/
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