Holy Mola, Laser Cutters! If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve probably seem some pretty cool projects coming out of my freshly arrived Glowforge laser cutter.
But laser cutters are not all sunshine and cool, wooden hinges. Laser cutters were, until very recently, the domain of industrial fabrication shops with extensive safety systems. As a new generation of low(er) cost, hobby and household cutters enter the market, we need to step back an think critically about the potential health and safety impacts of these incredible machines.
Like I did with 3D printers a few years back, I’m taking a deep dive into the hazards of laser cutters in the home and how to avoid them.
First, the issues of least concern (not because they aren’t bad, just that they’re far less likely to occur).
Fire. Lots of materials can catch fire, including, to no one’s surprise, wood. A fire safety plan will go a long way, but you can avoid ruining your laser cutter by being aware of what materials frequently catch fire. ABS, HDPE, polystyrene and polypropylene, and anything with poor thermal properties is going to ignite rather than cut cleanly. And then you’re going to have a bad day.
Beam escape. If your machine is not well taken care of and well shielded, there’s a small chance the wrong materials or loose connections can result in a beam escape, which can injure the user, bystanders, pets, or anything else that gets in the laser’s path. Most hobby grade lasers have good safety features to prevent this (although cheap knock-off machines are starting to hit the markets that may not be up to par), but monitoring you equipment and keeping it properly maintained will go a long way to avoiding this.
But those aren’t the biggest concerns. Th biggest concern with laser cutters is the byproduct that happens every time you cut, no mater what. That’s right, I’m talking about:
This is the big one and the issue that I’m most concerned about. Laser cutters haven’t really left industrial settings until now, so we don’t have very good data on chronic exposures of laser cutting fumes, especially on young children and pregnant people. What we do know is that the fumes produced by laser cutter depend heavily on the materials you choose to cut.
All materials will produce fumes when cut, which is why it’s essential that your set-up is well-ventilated. Most hobby cutters have a vent port that you can connect to a dryer vent or to the outside. I actually don’t recommend using a dryer vent. In all the rental houses I’ve lived in, not one has ever had the dryer properly vented, and hooking up to your dryer port might mean that you’re just venting into the crawlspace or the wall, rather than out of you house. Go for the window. There’s no hard and fast rule for how much ventilation you need, other than as much as possible. For 3D printers we recommended that your ventilation system moves 3 times as much air as the volume of the room per hour. For laser cutters, it should probably be more.
Everything you cut is going to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which is why ventilation is essential. For things like hardwoods and paper products, the VOCs released are comparable to a woodburning stove, frying too much bacon, or sitting around a campfire (though sitting around a campfire will give you a much higher dose). Prolonged exposure can cause respiratory problems and asthma. More complex materials like plywoods and plastics can have some pretty nasty compounds, so you want to make absolutely sure you know what’s going into your laser cutter, be aware of what materials should never, ever go into you household cutter, and always ventilate, ventilate, ventilate.