Toxins from 3D printed plastic discs disrupted the development of zebrafish embryos, according to a study published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

A year ago, researchers at the University of California Riverside bought a 3D printer to help with their research in zebrafish embryos, but they were dismayed to find that the embryos were dying after being exposed to the chemicals.

The researchers decided to investigate whether it was the chemicals causing the problem and if so, which ones. They decided to test proprietary plastics from two different 3D printers–one, called Dimension Elite, which creates an object by melting solid plastic then cooling it into the desired shape, and another called Form 1+ that starts with liquid resin. The researchers printed a total of six small plastic discs, two from each printer. Each disc was then placed in a tank with 30 newly fertilized zebrafish embryos and left there for four to seven days.

3D printing objects

From left to right, liquid resin used in some 3D printers, piece of plastic 3D-printed from liquid resin, and a resin piece after being treated with UV light.

The results were alarming. The fish exposed to the disc printed from liquid resin fared the worst—after three days, more than half were dead, and by the end of the seventh day all were dead. The embryos in the tanks with the melted plastic didn’t fare much better; most died, and 100 percent of those that were born had developmental abnormalities.

This probably isn’t the first time you’ve heard about plastic that contains endocrine disruptors—chemicals that can leach out of the plastic under certain conditions and mimic hormones in the body. Normally, plastic produced in a factory has to meet certain health and safety guidelines enforced by organizations like the EPA. However no one had looked at the plastic in 3D printers before, and it’s not regulated. That could present a threat to human health as more 3D printers make their way into homes—more of these chemicals might be in places where people spend much of their time, and improperly disposing of messed-up globs of plastic could mean that the chemicals end up in the water supply.

The researchers also looked at ways to reduce the toxicity of the plastic, and they found that leaving the plastic for an hour under ultraviolet light worked pretty well. But the study raises a lot of questions about how the plastic might affect human health and who should be regulating it. In future studies the researchers plan to test the toxicity of individual components of the plastic and delve more deeply into their effects on human health, according to a UCR press release.

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