Once reserved for industrial fabrication shops with extensive safety systems and protocols, the incredible capabilities of laser cutting have been brought into the homes of crafters everywhere with household laser cutters. Using the same technology as industrial-sized CNC laser cutter engravers in a small, household format, laser cutters give crafters the ability to create their own artisan goods in the comfort of their own home.
While there's no doubt that home laser cutters are convenient and open a world of possibility for creative crafters, how safe are they?
Laser cutting is a fabrication process that uses a high-powered, focused laser beam to cut material into custom designs. A diverse range of materials can be used with laser cutters, such as wood, plastic, metal, glass and paper, to create intricate and complex designs.
Hobby-grade laser-cutting machines have extensive safety features built right in to protect the crafter from some of the risks associated with industrial-grade machines. That said, there are some hazards to be aware of.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is abundant in the craft community in the form of craft vinyl. It's versatile, inexpensive and comes in a variety of colors and options, making it desirable for everything from fashion crafts to decor to accessories.
Unfortunately, PVC comes with incredible environmental and health risks. Dioxin, a toxic chemical byproduct of the manufacturing, use and disposal of vinyl, is absorbed by the bodies of humans and animals and stored in fatty tissues. Humans absorb dioxin through the animals we eat and through contact with vinyl.
Along with environmental hazards, dioxin has been linked to diseases of the respiratory, reproductive and immune systems. It's also classified as a human carcinogen by the World Health Organization.
PVC also produces another harmful byproduct: phthalates. Phthalates are found in all plastics but are common in PVC as a plasticizer to increase the transparency, durability, longevity and flexibility.
These risks increase with the use of laser-cutting machines. The fumes produced by cutting PVC with a laser include chlorine gas, a poisonous gas and pulmonary irritant that can cause severe acute damage to the respiratory tract.
Polycarbonate is a thermoplastic polymer that's attractive to the crafting community for its pliability and variety. It carries many of the same environmental risks as PVC and other plastics, including ocean pollution, but also produces hazardous fumes when heated and cut with a laser.
Though extensive research hasn't been conducted on its use with craft laser cutters, it's been established that heated polycarbonate produces phosgene, a hazardous chemical that was once used as a chemical weapon. The symptoms are slow to appear, but phosgene acts on the pulmonary system and can cause suffocation.
In addition, polycarbonate, like other thermoplastics, can only be heated once. The first heating causes the materials to set, but the second heating only burns. This property makes polycarbonate unsuitable for recycling, and its use contributes to plastic waste and pollution.
Polyethylene is a widely produced and available thermoplastic that's used in a variety of products and applications. When exposed to lasers, polyethylene releases formaldehyde that can cause respiratory damage and acute asthma attacks. Prolonged exposure to formaldehyde can cause cancer.
Discarded polyethylene waste also presents an environmental hazard. It will not biodegrade, and the small particles have been known to accumulate in the digestive systems of seabirds and marine life. As it accumulates, the digestive system stops functioning correctly and wildlife is at risk of starvation.
Pallet wood is a common material in craft communities. It's easy to find, cheap and versatile, making it desirable for many types of projects. Unfortunately, not all pallet wood is created equal. Some pallet wood is treated with methyl bromide, a fumigant used to control pests in agriculture and shipping.
Along with depleting the ozone layer, methyl bromide can cause central nervous system and respiratory system failures, injury to the lungs, eyes and skin, and other health problems with prolonged exposure. Though methyl bromide has been widely phased out since 2005, certain uses are exempt, and it's still possible to come in contact with affected pallet wood.
While the fumes produced when laser cutting craft vinyl are a concern, plenty of craft options are still on the table. Fortunately, our PVC-free self adhesive vinyl offers a safe, green alternative that can be used with a hobby laser-cutting machine. Our Stahls' heat transfer vinyl is also laser safe!
Our vinyl is eco-friendly, PVC-free and self-adhering for virtually limitless craft options, both with and without the use of a laser cutter. Without PVC, our vinyl is free of the harmful chlorine byproduct that presents a health hazard when laser cutting conventional craft vinyl. You can even recycle the scraps!
Bringing a CNC laser-cutting machine home for hobby use was a game-changer for the hobby community, but not when so many material options present health hazards. Fortunately, we offer a PVC-free, non-toxic option for creating exciting craft projects with a home laser-cutting machine without risking health or the environment.
What will you create next? Tag us on Instagram @ecofriendlycrafting and show off your skills!