Toner Dust Not As Bad as First Thought, But ...

Last year a report from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Australia said that the particles of toner released by laser printers might be as bad for your health as cigarette smoke. A new study from Germany's Fraunhofer Wilhelm Klauditz Institute (WKI) purportedly refutes that conclusion.

The report, interestingly, was done in collaboration with QUT, and states that contrary to the prior study, laser printers are not releasing toner into the air, but rather "ultra-fine particles made of volatile organic-chemical substances (VOCs)."

WKI head of department Prof. Dr. Tunga Salthammer said, “One essential property of these ultra-fine particles is their volatility, which indicates that we are not looking at toner dust.”

OK, so we're not looking at toner particles. What are we looking at?

The cause is the fixing unit, which heats so that toner will "fix" to the paper. "The high temperatures cause volatile substances such as paraffins and silicon oils to evaporate, and these accumulate as ultra-fine particles," said WKI.

But VOCs are emitted by many things, including your furniture upholstery, paints, varnishes, and according to the WKI, even toasters. And VOC filters for a printer don't work, apparently.

It's interesting though: both PC Magazine and C|Net seem to imply that the printer VOCs, since they are not toner particles, mean your printer is now in the clear in terms of your health.

But the EPA's site is not so clear, and actually lists a host of issues that can be attributed to VOCs (emphasis ours):
Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. Key signs or symptoms associated with exposure to VOCs include conjunctival irritation, nose and throat discomfort, headache, allergic skin reaction, dyspnea, declines in serum cholinesterase levels, nausea, emesis, epistaxis, fatigue, dizziness. The ability of organic chemicals to cause health effects varies greatly from those that are highly toxic, to those with no known health effect. As with other pollutants, the extent and nature of the health effect will depend on many factors including level of exposure and length of time exposed. Eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment are among the immediate symptoms that some people have experienced soon after exposure to some organics. At present, not much is known about what health effects occur from the levels of organics usually found in homes. Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.
Naturally we're not scientists, at least not in this field. And we're not going so far as the original QUT study. But the WKI study, at least as detailed on their site, does not look at the effects of the printer VOCs themselves, just that there are no toner particles emitted.

So, the best thing to do is try not have a cubicle next to a laser printer at work, and don't go breathing deeply around your laser printer either. As with anything, give enough of something to anyone, and you'll have a problem. Minimal exposure is probably the best rule.