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Studies find laser printers emit lung-damaging particles on the order of cigarette smoking

By Rick C. Hodgin
Berlin (Germany) - Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, a German research company that just completed a study on laser printer emissions, reports that volatile organic-chemical emissions (ozone), silicon oil, paraffin and ultra-fine particles are emitted during laser printing. Though they don't go into significant detail on the health-related issues. However, several previous Australian research studies show that the particle emissions are comparable to cigarette smoking. The Australian study also suggests that printer companies should be regulated by the government as their products are often a major source of inter-office air pollution.

There is a particular smell emitted when laser printers are in use. It's ozone, the "volatile organic-chemical" identified in these studies. In relatively high concentrations above 1 ppm, it can cause irritation to eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Most people can smell it in much lower concentrations though, even down to 0.01 ppm. It is interesting to note that ozone is responsible for the cracking found in old car tires. Modern tires have additives which prevent damage from ozone.

Because of the ozone smell, many consumers were concerned the redolent emissions were either toxic, carcinogenic or both. The studies so far indicate that, while they aren't 100% sure, all of the mechanisms are in place to effectively deliver toxic or carcinogenic particles.

Innocuous paraffins and silicon oils

The studies found that even printers which do not use toner, but rather some form of high heat printing mechanisms (like FAX machines), also emit certain types of chemicals. These gather and collate in the air and form ultra-fine particles of both silicon oil and paraffins.

Silicon oil is innocuous. It is comprised of alternating atoms of silicon and oxygen and is one of the two main ingredients in Silly Putty (with boric acid being the other) which children often eat. It has countless electrical and medical uses as a non-conducting, nontoxic lubricant. Sometimes it is added to cooking oils to reduce foaming at high temperatures. It's also non-flammable.

Paraffin is equally innocuous: It is the name for any of a series of hydrocarbons in the form CnH(2n+2), such as C20H42, which is paraffin wax. Or, the simplest form of paraffin, which is methane (CH4). Other forms include octane, kerosene and mineral oil. The name paraffin comes from the Latin parum and affinis, which means "lacking affinity" or, more specifically, "lacking reactivity." Various paraffin forms are found in all kinds of edible applications, including candies, chewing gums, waxy cheese packages, canning topping, and are used because of their low health danger.

Possibly dangerous toner particles

The Fraunhofer study, which was paid for by "the printer and copier manufacturers in a German Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, called BITKOM," found that the laser printers emit almost no particles of toner. However, several previous studies found many toner particle emissions.

The previously identified trends indicate also that when toner cartridges are new, they emit more particles than when they are old. Also, when printing heavy graphics or when large amounts of toner are used on the print surface, particle emissions grow.

These toner particles are of particular interest in the medical field, because they are comprised of both extremely tiny and very large particles.

According to a mid-August, 2007 article in the American Chemical Society's semi-monthly Environment Science and Technology journal, the smallest particles can find their way into the deepest lung crevices. The larger particles, on the other hand, are capable of gathering and carrying a multitude of toxins into the body.

Regulations proposed

The 2007 Australian findings were incidental. The researchers were originally looking at alternate sources of pollution. However, during the course of their study, they realized that office laser printers were increasing indoor air pollution by about 500%. These studies found the dangers high enough to prompt a call for governmental regulation.

According to Lidia Morawska, a PhD working with the American Chemical Society, "It wasn't an area that we consciously decided to study. We came across it by chance. Initially we were studying the efficiency of ventilation systems to protect office settings from outdoor air pollutants. We soon realized that we were seeing air pollution originating indoors, from laser printers."

The study indicated the 500% increase from laser printer operations alone. She goes on to say, "By all means, this is an important indoor source of pollution. There should be regulations."

These earlier, reports of the dangers of air pollution from laser printers came out in 2007. The Fraunhofer report was released today. And whereas Fraunhofer indicates the same kind of particles found in the atmosphere as the previous reports, they do not go into details relating to health side-effects.

Since "technical and financial support was provided by the printer and copier manufacturers in the German Association (BITCOM)," we cannot help but wonder why they did not disclose the full health ramifications or to fully describe the particle emissions.
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