Laser printers can dirty the air

The smaller an air-pollution particle is, the more likely it will be inhaled deep into the lungs, where it can trigger disease. A new study finds that office laser printers can spew especially small particles.

Lidia Morawska of the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia, says that her team stumbled onto the finding while attempting to evaluate the effectiveness of office ventilation by comparing indoor and outdoor pollution. In the office building studied, airborne concentrations of nanoscale specks were higher than they were near a busy expressway.

Using air monitors, the physicists tracked down the major indoor culprits: 13 of the building’s 62 laser printers were high emitters of fine particulates, another 2 were mid-level emitters, and 7 were low emitters.

During workdays, at least, the building’s ventilation system couldn’t remove all the printers’ combined pollution. For the dirtiest printers, emissions climbed as the amount of toner increased. Once emitted, fine particles circulated widely and took hours to settle out. The researchers didn’t chemically identify the particles.

Brand names and model numbers offered no clear guide to a printer’s emissions. For instance, three Hewlett-Packard models had representatives on lists of both the worst polluters and machines emitting no particles, the researchers report in the Sept.1 Environmental Science & Technology.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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