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RMIT Researchers Examine Environmental and Health Risks Posed by 3D Printing

Three-dimensional (3D) printing, also known as additive manufacturing, refers to those technologies capable of developing 3D objects from raw materials, like metals and polymers based on computerized 3D parametric models.

3D printed plastics can potentially pose health and environmental risks.

3D printers are known as additive manufacturing technologies because they construct objects by depositing material in consecutive layers, rather than ablating or cutting the material.

3D printers are extremely popular as their technology has been used to construct a wide variety of things, ranging from sports shoes to supercars. This popularity is increasing, with the market predicted to be worth more than $21 billion in global revenue by 2020.

Based on the increasing usage of 3D printers, RMIT researchers believe that there should be attention placed on how harmful the common 3D printing materials could be.

A team, headed by Associate Professor Donald Wlodkowic, carried out a pilot study and discovered that the parts constructed using specific 3D printing processes may turn out to be unsafe, as they produce increasing quantities of toxic substances when they come in close proximity to water.

Critical biocompatibility issues and potential hazard risk implications of widespread usage of 3D printed polymers have so far received only marginal attention. We used both cell-based assays as well as whole-organism biotests to screen for risks of exposure to 3D printed parts as well as potential leachates of toxic molecules from 3D printed plastics. This process highlighted the toxicity of 3D printed polymer and allowed us to establish a predictive analytical workflow to rapidly determine the toxicology of a burgeoning number of polymers used in 3D printing. We have already found one very toxic substance that has recently been reported as leaching from plastic ampoules used for intravenous injections.

Donald Wlodkowic, Associate Professor, RMIT

It is difficult to precisely examine the long-term risks posed by the material composition used to form 3D printed parts, as manufacturers usually do not disclose such information. The scientists hope that this study will help to create a fundamental characterization of environmental and health risks presented by exposure to newly developed 3D printed materials.

Currently the health risks are unknown, but it is possible to gather information about the allergies developed through skin contact, as skin is considered to be a very common exposure route to photopolymers during the handling of 3D printing materials and parts. There are also a number of vital environment consequences as 3D printed plastic pollution is on an increase.

We live in an era of explosive growth of 3D printing industry. It is estimated that by the end of 2019 we will achieve more than 5.6 million shipments of 3D printing technologies globally. This will translate to large volumes of 3D printed waste materials that need to be safely disposed.

Donald Wlodkowic, Associate Professor, RMIT

Wlodkowic raised concern about the lack of regulatory systems to examine the outcome of too much exposure to 3D printed components, their environmental influence on food chains, and especially tactics for safely collecting, treating and disposal of 3D printed components and waste obtained during additive manufacturing processes.

Based on our pilot studies, we garnered evidence that many of the polymerized resins used are unsafe. This data warrants development of a larger study to perform comprehensive exploration at genomic, cellular, and organismal levels. The impact of our research is significant. 3D printing is being rapidly adopted in multiple Australian industries. In light of this manufacturing revolution, the Australian population's exposure to a variety of new polymers will be increasing exponentially. The results carry significant consequences for researchers within healthcare, bioengineering and biomedical devices communities, in which 3D printing and more generally rapid prototyping technologies have provided an opportunity to generate physical parts or devices in a short period of time, directly from computer-based designs. Similarly researchers within the broader field of life sciences have now recognized the benefits of these technologies, and our findings provide a route towards assessment of a plethora of devices fabricated using additive manufacturing to ensure biocompatibility.

Donald Wlodkowic, Associate Professor, RMIT

Wlodkowic’s team of researchers assume that all their findings point out the requirement for improved regulation of the 3D printing industry, especially those regulations related to the materials used for developing 3D printed parts.

Recently, the researchers published their findings in the Lab-on-a-Chip and Biomicrofluidics journals in addition to the Proceeding of SPIE - the international society for optics and photonics.

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