Lasers, sprays, and indoor air quality?

Lian Chikako Chang

Hi all!  I'm working on an initiative with some classmates to improve the indoor air quality at our school.  Like other schools, we've got off-gassing laser-cut plexi, sprays, plotters, and other goodies that leak toxic VOCs and particulates into the air.  Of course, with these chemicals, no level of exposure is safe.

SO I'm wondering about what other schools and offices have done about this--if you have best practices, sources for health information, or other tips to share?

MUCH appreciated.


Jun 23, 11 6:15 pm

laser's should have an exhaust piped to the exterior... avoid cutting pvc/nylon based... only cut wood, basswood, CAST acrylic (the cheap stuff at home depot with blue wrap on it is extruded plastic).... any type of wood with glue (mdf/masonite/etc) will cause intense burn and off gassing, some of the glues have UV chemicals also


spray booths should have a filter system and exhaust fan to the exterior... you can make a cheap one if needed, not that hard


Jun 23, 11 9:21 pm  · 
Token AE

Why not take it one step further? Instead of simply pumping this stuff into the outdoor environment, why not also put some framework in place to prevent these materials from being used in the first place?

Jun 23, 11 10:13 pm  · 

Because that would force them to not be able to have pretty models anymore!

Jun 23, 11 10:19 pm  · 

Holy spambot, Batman!

Anyways, in addition to some kind of system that continually exhausts, personal protection (like a facemask) should be worn too.  They're not perfect, but they can help some. 

(If you have to use toxic chemicals at all, that is...early education in the role of VOCs in indoor air quality could start in design schools by having a 'toxicity' scale for the materials you might potentially use.)

This is a big problem in design schools!  It's something in the culture.  Huddling over some kind of toxic-smelling foam cutter (or whatever) for hours on end with no ventilation or facemask seems to be an experience everyone has had at least once, and it can't be good for our collective health.

Jun 23, 11 11:35 pm  · 
Lian Chikako Chang

Hey all (minus sir spamalot)!  Thanks so much. 

@binary: Yeah, we have the basic filtering, fumehood and laser materials prohibitions (on the blue-backed plex) in place.  Problem is that even the cuttable materials are really toxic; there's a burst of fumes when you open the lasercutter, and then it off-gasses for hours (and days) afterward in studio. 

@TokenAE: I agree!  Sometimes when you're approaching Gund Hall, you can get a whiff of plexi fumes from a block or two away, depending on the winds.  So reducing overall emissions is a necessary goal.  I'd like to start a website where people can share ideas for healthier and safer model-making techniques and materials...there's no way that we can ban materials at our school, but hopefully we can promote alternatives that don't sacrifice looks and quality...

@MixmasterFestus: Facemasks are a great idea.  If we could provide those in our lasercutter room, it'd probably get people thinking about toxicity, in addition to helping out those who choose to use them.  And a 'toxicity scale' could be good...humorous and informative.  (I'm thinking it could be modeled after the 'Blackness scale' that SNL did during the 2008 presidential election.)

Jun 24, 11 2:32 pm  · 
Lian Chikako Chang

other ideas?

Jun 24, 11 2:32 pm  · 

I know how the fumes of plexi linger in the lazer lab (even the "safe" plexi) but when I used a facemask I just ended up deciding that the plexi smell was less terrible than the vending machine burrito on my breath. I know schools that have banned certain materials (all sprays - paint, glues, or fixatives - and foamcore) which seems like the worst approach. In the end, well ventilated stations for lazer cutters and spray booths (combined with info for personal health) that are removed from studio space is probably the best solution.

Good Luck.

Jun 24, 11 8:37 pm  · 
Lian Chikako Chang

18x32, your burrito breath made my day.  Not that I don't feel your pain, but this was very, very funny.  I totally agree that banning materials is a bad choice, though!

Jun 25, 11 10:58 am  · 

double check your laser filters/exhaust just make sure sure you are getting enough air movement.... some materials may smelled "burned" but that doesn't mean they are off gasing...... double check the foam filters on the laser machine too...

Jun 25, 11 11:54 am  · 

"some materials may smelled "burned" but that doesn't mean they are off gasing."

If you can smell it, it's producing a gas.

PVC off-gasses elemental chlorine.

Acrylic actually off-gasses methyl methacrylate if heated to combustion point as polymethyl methacrylate breaks down during exposure to heat. A pure combustion of acrylic releases copious amounts of carbon monoxide. So, even if you can't smell it doesn't mean it's not filling up the room with gas.

Balsa wood, as well as some other woods, have an allergy component to them rather than a chemical hazard danger. While these balsa and basswood generally aren't considered a nuisance, some other popular woods being used (especially tropical woods) are not only highly-allergenic but also highly-toxic. There's a reason why insects don't eat cedar.

Beechwood causes cancer. African Teak and nearly all Maples causes chemical pneumonia.Rosewood, Purpleheart and a few other South American tropicals cause tiredness and vomiting. Almost all laurels contain potent neurotoxins.

Anything with glue other than a simple starch glue should never be heated above boiling point.

And lastly, buy aerosols from the craft store. Many craft stores generally have a section of "craft paints" meant for indoor use. These paints generally use ethanol or another light alcohol as a solvent rather than hexane, bezene or xylitol. They're fairly more expensive and dry much, much slower but  they are far less toxxic to ones health and don't off-gas even after drying.

Floral spray paints are even less toxic but harder to find.

Jun 25, 11 12:29 pm  · 

My school stopped allowing students to use sprays at the school, and started buying just plain old corrugated cardboard instead of foamcoare in the school store. 

Of course I still used CA glue that would make my eyes water when I leaned in too close to see what I was doing, and if I ever needed to spray paint anything I'd just do it at home...but overall I'd say it did cut down my use of nasty stuff, although my methane output from eating pizza and burritos in studio didn't decline.

Jun 25, 11 2:55 pm  · 

"Beechwood causes cancer. African Teak and nearly all Maples causes chemical pneumonia.Rosewood, Purpleheart and a few other South American tropicals cause tiredness and vomiting."

Dude, what kind of architecture school did you go to? African Teak???!!!

I guess that explains where all of the people who can pay to intern for Frank Gehry come from: Commodore Richington's School for Independently Wealthy Architects. Well, at least I can thank poverty for keeping me chemical pneumonia free.

However, though I never used rosewood in a model, I did experience plenty of tiredness and vomiting during architecture school... CURSE YOU COMMODORE RICHINGTON!!!!

Jun 25, 11 4:08 pm  · 

mine as well stay away from laptops because bad posture will cause back issues along with eye strain

Jun 25, 11 10:22 pm  · 
Lian Chikako Chang

Archimus, no worries!  What working and middle-class environments lack in african teak are surely made up for by asbestos...

Jun 26, 11 10:41 am  · 
Token AE

Oh, why didn't you say it was GSD in the first place.

Hazardous chemicals being pumped out into the surrounding environment can only improve the dump that is Cambridge. Let 'er rip, i say.

Jun 26, 11 8:51 pm  · 
Lian Chikako Chang

Cambridge is a dump?  You haven't lived where I've lived, friend.

Seriously, though, I know we all joke about these chemicals because we all use them while crossing our fingers that they're not as bad they sound (and smell).. but...sometimes, they are that bad.  People really do get very, very ill from these things and it's just a blessing if it's not you or someone you know. Sorry to be so somber.  Just got some rough news about a friend. 

Seriously, this shit is not good!  We do have all the standard precautions and safety measures in place at the GSD but I really think we all can and should do better for ourselves.  Anyways, I appreciate the brainstorming'd be great if anyone has more ideas?





Jun 26, 11 11:19 pm  · 

Har har, I only brought up the wood bit because many people often think of wood as pretty much an innocent material that poses little harm.

And they're maybe some truth to that. Sawdust from manual saws really isn't large enough to become airborne and pose a respiratory or contact danger. However, power tools, sanders and especially tools used for finishing present a more modern hazard to the average wood worker than previously encountered.

And lasers generally oxidize most materials through intense combustion rendering them relatively harmless as most oxidized materials are unable to do much biological harm. But, lasers also "atomize" materials pretty well meaning that your "techno-sawdust" is tinier and potentially even more dangerous than ever before.

Jun 27, 11 12:14 am  · 
Token AE

Eh, I lived in Philadelphia for 15 years and I am subletting in Cambridge (Harvard Square) now before I ultimately move into Back Bay in September.

I fail to see what all the hoopla is about-. Kendall square is nice, but I really wouldn't write home about the rest. Quite frankly, I felt that my car was less likely to get stolen in Philadelphia. And I drive a 15 year old domestic car.

But back to the matter at hand, and time for IAQ:

There are filtration systems for almost every toxic vapor that you can think of- even the nasty organic ones that come from plastics. Do you know what the MSDS says for your commonly cut materials in vapor/ gas form? Do you know what particulates your current filter is set to entrap?

If you can maintain adequate air pressure with a filter for organics (plastics), that may be another cost effective solution for you that won't harm the exterior environment- although the filters will have to be changed from time to time.



Jun 27, 11 9:43 pm  · 
Token AE

And to follow up, I fully realize the gravity of the situation.

I was hospitalized 3x due to exposure to organic vapor from a particularly nasty resin. Once you get hit by one of these, you are exponentially more sensitive to them.

Jun 27, 11 9:44 pm  · 

Commodore Richington's School for Independently Wealthy Architects. Well, at least I can thank poverty for keeping me chemical pneumonia free.

This cracked me up.  So funny.

In my early internship days we had something that would allow you to repair sepia prints.  Some brown-clear liquid that would burn if it touched your skin, as I recall, plus of course the highly toxic ammonia needed for blueprints.

Plus ZipKicker.  And I went to the emergency room once for not using tongs in the darkroom.

Not minimizing the toxins of today, just reminiscing.  Although every school SHOULD have a good exhaust system, wearing a respirator with the proper filters is definitely NOT overkill when cutting anything toxic.  Ask your parents for one for Christmas - tell them they should consider it an investment in healthy grandkids!

Jun 27, 11 11:10 pm  · 

Human beings wouldn't have had the need to invent helmets if we didn't have a propensity for sports that would do our heads in otherwise.  


But perhaps that's mainly Americans.


Happy 4th, everybody!

Jul 4, 11 7:34 pm  · 

Every semester around thesis time the laser cutting/milling room gets used extensively and the smell can start to radiate through the whole building. I find thick pieces of acrylic are the absolute worst! Smells terrible, and I'm sure its just as bad on the lungs. Just curious: Does anyone know how dangerous the odor from using Acetone is? I was told that the stuff evaporates almost instantly after leaving the bottle (and it dries insanely quick too). Its the same active ingredient in nailpolish, just at a higher concentration. I've started to use it more and more as I like the effect it can give a drawing but I'd be curious if anyone knows about its actual toxicity?




Jul 4, 11 9:09 pm  · 
Token AE


If you are working with chemicals that you are unfamiliar with you may want to look for its material safety data sheet (MSDS).

It will basically give you a list of do's, don'ts, and facts for nearly every chemical that the public can get its hands on. There are numerous sites that offer these for free, and a google search should get you what you need.

I believe a manufacturer is required by law to have these on hand or on their website as well.

Jul 4, 11 11:15 pm  · 

How about getting directly exposed to highly organic raw rays of laser at a lab. I got directly exposed to laser while working at bio medical lab and was hospitalized for several weeks and in the first I was unconscious and couldn't remember anything till now.

Laptop Parts

Jul 5, 11 3:13 am  · 

"highly organic raw rays"

Lasers are neither inorganic or organic as photons do not contain any matter whether it be carbonaceous or not.

I have no idea how you were in the presence of a Class-IV laser for a period of time significant enough to cause 3rd to 4th degree burns considering that Class-IV lasers are usually only operated in highly-controlled environments usually behind shielding. And I'm not entirely sure why anyone would let a spambot operate a minimum 1 watt laser in the first place.

Unless they have some sort of kinky spit-in-Isaac-Asimov's-face fetish being forced to buy questionable laptop parts from discount websites of ill-repute at laser point.

Jul 5, 11 3:35 am  · 

As for acetone, it's actually found in food, water and within the body naturally as it is a product of certain metabolic processes. You'd have to inhale a lot of acetone for it to kill you— about 80 grams for the average person.

It is also often is exhaled out of the body through the lungs and is generally disposed of by the kidneys. People with metabolic diseases are known to have rather pungent smelling breathe and urine due to the presences of ketones (like acetone).

It might be wise to survey a class to see if anyone has any conditions that might predispose themselves to unnecessary damage from acetone exposure (diabetes, liver disease, hypertension, various kidney diseases) that might generally cause nothing more than a depression of mental alertness in healthier individuals.

But aside from that, acetone is probably one of the safest and least toxic of all solvents used. I also believe it's one of the only solvents that the EPA will let you dump into the atmosphere without restriction. You should probably avoid it but it is a much, much safer alternative to toulene, xlyene or benzene.

The bigger danger from acetone comes from explosions as acetone has a pretty serious fire danger. Do not use it with or in the presence of other highly combustible products and certainly not around sources of ignition (like laser beams for instance).

Also, avoid using this and other organic solvents in bright rooms with poor ventilation as acetone photodegrades into carbon monoxide.

Jul 5, 11 3:53 am  · 

Oh, so we are talking about the GSD. I always felt that the openness of the systems there and the 24/7 availability of the labs ("You are all grad students and adults working very hard: be relatively responsible") was certainly one of the schools strong points. Especially in contrast to Milwaukee's standpoint (which I also know firsthand).

In Gund the most problematic areas always seemed to be: the booths in the trays which never really seemed to vent and always contributed auditory annoyances; the lack of model building space to take one's lazered plexi to for assembly (instead of bringing the fumes back to the studio desks); and the inability to grab any fresh air while cutting/milling files in the basement. No easy solutions there, though, given the incredible lack of space in the building despite all efforts to compress tray allotments to their existenzminimum.

Jul 5, 11 6:29 pm  · 

james i think libertylap was a skillful bot

Jul 5, 11 9:28 pm  · 

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