When the sweet smell of progress isn’t so sweet.

When the sweet smell of progress isn’t so sweet.

Nothing wakes you up to the problems of environmental health like learning about an easily avoidable risk factor right under your nose. One of the first things that really caught my attention when I started studying air quality was a paper about the health risks from laserjet printers and photocopiers. You know that characteristic “fresh, warm toner” smell they give off? The one that you often pleasantly associate with the successful completion of a task?


Yeah, that smell is bad for you. Pretty dang bad, actually. There have been several studies now (unfortunately, all the good ones I can find are behind pay walls. Let me know if you’re interested and I can point you in the right direction) which have demonstrated that the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) associated with that smell are at best, carcinogenic and at worst, actively toxic. And they’re not alone, the smell of pine trees… also VOC’s. Also, not good for you, but we seldom get exposed to enough of it to really cause a meaningful risk. The smell of microwave popcorn is so well known as a toxin that it actually has its own syndrome, though unless you’re making and eating more than a bag per day, you’re probably safe. Pretty much anything you smell is some sort of VOC and a great many of them are not healthy. For the most part, we’re exposed to low concentrations of them, so the actual risk is fairly minor. But if you put a VOC source, like an inkjet printer, in a non-ventilated area, like an enclosed office, you can easily start getting enough exposure to cause health impacts.  

Which brings me to the paper put forth in the linked article (Open access, so click away). New, desktop 3-D printers are getting more and more affordable. Early-adopters, like the maker community, can have one at the end of their desk, right next to their paper printer (if they’re retro enough to still use paper, that is). These 3-D printers generally work by extruding small amounts of plastic or resin in layers, to create the desired shape. Pop quiz: what happens when you heat plastic? It smells funny, because it’s emitting VOC’s and now there’s evidence that those VOCs are not healthy.


I want to make that these risks are kept in perspective. If you use any kind of printer in a properly ventilated area, you’re probably safe. Even in an ventilated area, it’s probably going to take multiple uses per day before even the slightest health harm could be noticed. But it is something to think about and maybe a good reason to use a shared printer down the hall, rather than putting one right on your desk.


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