The study performed at Queensland University of Technology compares the possible health effects of laser-printer use to those of cigarettes, but as many experts point out, much information remains unknown. First, the composition of these UFPs is not fully understood. Critics and experts alike who have commented on the study, including the researchers themselves, agree that more research is needed about the effects of UFPs. Scientists must better understand what UFPs are, their health consequences and how and if they should be monitored and managed.
Some scientists, including several at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, say no clear link exists between ultrafine particles from printers and negative health effects. They, too, call for more research about these particles and how printer characteristics, like cartridge type or the age of a printer, affect emissions.
Besides the lack of knowledge about UFPs, the study might be made weaker by the types of printers used. Most of the printers were manufactured by HP, although that company sells more printers than any other company in the world. But Dr. Morawska's team didn't test printers from some other large manufacturers, including Epson, Lexmark and Brother.
The study provides information about the quantity of UFP emissions, but it doesn't tell us what's in the emissions. These emissions may come from toner, but what's in them? It may be harmful carcinogens and toner compounds, but HP claims they could also be condensation produced by the printing process and points out that other appliances, like toasters, produce UFPs. Additionally, the conclusion appears to compare UFP emissions to secondhand smoke based on the quantity of the particles -- not because of the actual toxicity of the emissions.
Robert Hamers of the University of Wisconsin's chemistry department told the Associated Press that laser-printer UFPs are "probably much less toxic than cigarette smoke," though he didn't cite any research [Source: Washington Post]. Another chemist called it a "preliminary finding" and not a reason to alter one's routine [Source: Washington Post].
In countering these criticisms, Dr. Morawska said that the most recent World Health Organization Air Quality Guidelines mention the ill health effects of ultrafine particles [Source: Sydney Morning Herald]. Though she acknowledged more research is needed, Dr. Morawska said that governments need to regulate printer emissions, offices should put printers in areas with good ventilation and manufacturers should work to reduce emissions.
Whether laser-printer UFPs will lead to printers being labeled as dangerous as cigarettes remains uncertain. But the research out of Australia has started a conversation about the subject that will surely lead to more studies in the future. For now, you're likely not risking your life by using a laser printer, but it can't hurt to keep your printer in an open, well-ventilated area.
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