Laser Printers Bad for You?


In an article on the web, reprinted by CTV.ca:   

Office workers may be breathing in dangerous dust emitted from laser printers, finds a disturbing new study from Australian researchers.   The researchers found that certain printers release tiny particles into the air that could pose "a significant health threat" when inhaled into their lungs.  Lidia Morawska, a professor in the School of Physical & Chemical Sciences at the Queensland University of Technology (and) colleagues looked at 62 brands of printers.  They classified 17 of them as "high particle emitters" because they released such elevated quantities of particles. 

Of course, this article has been picked up by all kinds of media outlets, like CNN and various news sources, usually under the sensationalist headline of "Killer Printers on the Job" or some other such foolishness. 

The issue is not that laser printers put microscopic particles in the air.  We know they do, some less than others.  The issue is what happens when we breathe them in?

If you’ve ever refilled a dry toner cartridge on a photocopier, or a laser printer, you know that the material is finer than baby powder, so finely ground that it almost seems like a liquid.  It clings to everything and spilling even the tiniest amount of toner, seems to spread it everywhere in seconds. 

Both devices work roughly the same, creating an image on a photosensitive drum that is positively charged, then dragging the negatively charged toner across the image drum and finally depositing the melted toner on the paper as a copy of the original.  There are variations of course, but those are the broad strokes of the technology.  To melt the toner, heat is used to set the pigment so it doesn’t smudge.  By happy coincidence, the image drum is hot enough to melt the toner.

Standing next to a photocopier or a laser printer while running a long job, you get that peculiar smell of hot electronics and ozone from the image drum fusing the toner on the paper.  Some kind of gas, odor or volatile vapor is being given off from the process.  What is it?  Nobody who knows will tell us. 

Very fine dust exists in nature.  Poke around a flower at pollen time.  Pollen feels like toner, in that pollen is amazingly fine particles of something not quite solid feeling.  Sand, obviously, feels like sand.  City dust on your windows feels finer than sand but not as fine as pollen.

Where our knowledge is lacking is what are the long term effects of exposure.  Lamp Black or Coal Dust were thought to be perfectly normal things, then the science caught up with them.  Black lung, silicosis or Miner’s Lung were the results.  Our forebears knew that the dust from filling a grain silo, or milling flour could burst into flames given the right concentrations and exposure to open flame, so they wore a kerchief around their nose and mouth to keep from breathing in the dust.

As a kid, the City of Ottawa used to use DDT fogging trucks to kill the mosquitoes in the late spring.  We’d follow along behind the fogger, driving our bicycles in and out of the DDT pretending we were airplanes hiding in clouds, then zooming out.

For those of us who are old enough to remember Roneo copies in school, we’d sniff the freshly Roneo’ed paper with that alcohol smell.  The really cool supply teachers would use two colored Roneo (or AB Dick) stencils, one with red for the headline and the purplish-blue for the body text.  We loved the permanent markers that were powered by ether.

In my high school, we had a huge asbestos fire curtain back of the proscenium that we had to test twice a year for the Fire Department.  The aircraft shop routinely used a fiberglass chopper gun to layup laminated parts, while we merrily rolled out the resin and hardener.  Getting high off the fumes was considered an excellent side benefit to aircraft shop while using dope on fabric wing structures. 

If we were welding or cutting we rarely used a hood, unless the shop teacher was around.  We did know enough not to look at the arc, most of the time.  In the paint shop we at least knew enough to wear coveralls.  Woodworking?  You’d come out covered in the finest dusts of walnut, pine, beech, basswood and mahogany with a fine glaze of shellac, urethane or French Polish depending on what you were doing.

Using a lead, tin and flux-coated soldering iron to hot-knife hashish was normal in Electronics class, especially when Mr. O’Brien was out of the room.  He told us he’d lost his sense of smell in an industrial accident years ago, so, we’d get messed up while working on our projects.

Eventually science and medicine caught up with our stupidity, ignorance or naivete, which is a good thing.  We trusted the manufacturers and our own common sense.  Both were found to be sorely lacking.

So will your laser printer kill you?  Quite probably.  We’ll find out in a few more months that exposure to photocopier and laser printer toner will cause tumors the size of turnips to break out on your lungs, while owning an inject printer means the tumors will only be the size of tangerines.

If we de-invented printers and photocopiers and went back to stone tablets and chisels, there will be a report somewhere that the Scribe who took down the Ten Commandments died from exposure to granite dust, not the Roman Centurions, as originally believed.  There will also be reports that scribes are being unnecessarily blinded by flying rock fragments and chisel chips.   

Look folks, everything, including time, will kill you eventually.  Nothing is 100% safe if humans are involved in it.

 

 

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