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Safety of laser cut foamboard (fumes, etc)? Answered

So I cut some elmers 3/16" foam board today on our schools laser cutter- it gave off some nasty fumes but luckily most of it was ventilated out of the cutter. My concern is that inhaling the fumes (or the low-volume fumes i got from whatever smoke was left in the laser cutter), will be pretty bad for you. I dont know how toxic the fumes are from laser cutting foam, but my guess would be pretty bad. I also read somewhere that heating the foam up produces a lot of toxic byproducts, one of them being cyanide... Is this stuff safe to handle? I did feel a bit "foggy" afterwards, and had a slight pain in my chest, but not a lot...Thanks!



Best Answer 5 years ago

Two-part answer:

1. Yes, the fumes were probably quite toxic.

2. Unless you inhaled significant quantities of the fumes, in an unventilated area, then your symptoms were either psychosomatic or completely unrelated to the fumes.

As it is a school laser cutter, I would assume that health and safety have been properly dealt with regarding ventilation and filtration of fumes, but there are a couple of things it is easy to forget:

> Switch the ventilation on before you start cutting, or fumes will build up inside the cutter, and start depositing icky stuff on lenses and mirrors.

> Do not open the lid as soon as the cutting finishes - the recommended action when generating unhealthy fumes is to leave the fan running for at least two minutes between finishing cutting and opening the lid.

(As an extra aside, beware of the chlorine content of plastics - if I were to use our laser cutter on PVC or urethane-based materials, it would immediately invalidate the warranty, because the fumes produced corrode the mirrors quite badly.)

The chemistry of styrenes contain no N, so you are not going to be cynides. The most likely byproduct is CO, but unless you ran with NO extraction that's unlikely to be an issue.

I found you the MSDS for Elmer's Foam Board (oddly, it wasn't on Elmer's website under MSDS).

Its made of Isopentane, Polystyrene and Talc. They say when burned, polystyrene emits styrene, carbon monoxide and other hydrocarbons.

Styrene on its own is considered a hazardous chemical. The EPA says its "a suspected toxin" to the respiratory system etc.; but its really hard to say how much styrene is actually burning during the laser cutting process and if that translates into a hazard.

The only people who would know is Elmer's. They are required by law to provide you with material safety information, so you may want to contact them. At any rate, I would get an adequate mask or respirator to wear if you intend to cut the foam board again (as its better to be safe than sorry).

I'm certainly not an expert, but I wouldn't worry about it.
The compounds that are released are dependent on the type of polymer the foam is made of. If you want to know specifically what chemicals are created, look up the combustion reaction of the type of foam you're using.

While it is true that the combustion of many foam polymers creates toxic bi-products, the majority of the polymer is converted into carbon dioxide and water.
I wouldn't be worried about cyanide poisoning, as no foam polymers I know of produce cyanide in any amount high enough to do harm. However, I might look into the symptoms you experienced. You should be fine, but if you're really worried, a respirator would help.