Is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Plastic Toxic?


We first looked at ABS plastic 5 years ago because it kept showing up in highchairs and Legos.  Our research at the time showed that ABS was a stable resin that didn't leach toxic chemicals under normal, everyday use.  We've continued watching for updates and so far, our initial conclusion remains true today as no new studies have come to light showing otherwise.

Does ABS Leach Toxic Chemicals?

While it's true that the individual ingredients, such as styrene, may be toxic on their own in liquid/vapor forms, ABS plastic resin seems to be stable and non-leaching.  It's the same situation with other plastics like acrylonitrile styrene (AS) or styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) which is used in Brita pitchers and many mixing bowls, dishes, cups and cutlery.  AS/SAN and ABS are higher quality plastics with increased strength, rigidity, toughness and temperature and chemical resistance.

ABS is made by adding butadiene during the manufacture of AS/SAN, resulting in a hard and durable plastic that is stable through a broad range of temperatures.  It's tossed into the “catch-all” category #7 of plastic recycling codes.  It's important to note that ABS can also be combined with polycarbonate (BPA) and flame retardants for various applications, so it's important to confirm what type of ABS is being used in the products you purchase.

In the case of Legos, the clear pieces are often made from polycarbonate, and parts that need to be more flexible than ABS allows (like rods, clips, flags, and string) are usually made from some form of nylon.

Can ABS Be Recycled?

Yes.  ABS is considered a #7 plastic (this is the catch-all category).  Most recycling centers can handle ABS plastic, and electronics manufacturers are finding new ways to reuse ABS flakes from production.

Our Thoughts on ABS

ABS production may be dangerous in vapor form for workers. But while the individual ingredients aren't good for you, it's unlikely you will encounter them because ABS doesn't break down easily or leach anything into food, water or soil. Plasticizers like phthalate aren't required, so there are none to be released.

It's our understanding that flame retardants are often added to the ABS used in kitchen appliances and electronics because they're plugged into outlets and present a fire hazard.  We recommend contacting the manufacturer to find out which fire retardants are being used in your products.  Hopefully it's a non-halogenated/non-brominated retardant (they're much less toxic), but if not, urge them to switch to a safer option.

In summary,  we feel comfortable with the use of ABS in toys (like Legos) and household products like highchairs, because no BPA, phthalates or flame retardant chemicals are added in these cases, and the plastic seems to be stable and very durable.

Common Uses for ABS Plastic

  • Toys (such as Legos)
  • Kitchenware/appliance casing
  • Highchairs
  • Cosmetic packaging
  • Panels for refrigerators
  • 3D printers generally print using ABS
  • Telephone, cell phone, TV, computer and gaming console casing
  • Musical instrument and equipment cases
  • Pipes
  • Golf clubs
  • Car parts
  • Vacuums
  • Protective head gear
  • Luggage
  • Storage bins

P.S.  A note on 3D printing: this new printing method often uses expensive ABS filaments, so people are melting down their old printing objects to repurpose for new ones.  It turns out that the biggest mistake being made is the overheating of ABS, which can cause excessive amounts of Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN) to be released (a gas emitted by plastics when they are set on fire).  So be careful!

photo credit: alykat via photopin cc

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17 Responses to Is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Plastic Toxic?

  1. clv October 30, 2012 at 3:24 pm #

    what about HIPS plastics, which also have polystyrene in the name?
    i am looking at some toy insstruments thay will be blown on by my kids this Christmas?? Any input? Thanks

  2. john June 15, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    what a crap article. ABS plastic leaches chemicals out at a high rate and is not stable

    • The Soft Landing Sisters
      The Soft Landing Sisters August 16, 2013 at 9:49 am #

      Hi John, we’d like to see any evidence that you believe we’ve missed. We’ll sure look into it if needed. ~Laura

  3. Dennis February 10, 2014 at 5:17 am #

    I work in the plastic industry and have to sand many components made with ABS secondary is this safe

  4. Betsy (Eco-novice) May 1, 2014 at 10:32 pm #

    What a relief! If Legos are safe enough for The Safe Landing, they are safe enough for me : ) I do remember that you have to beware of old Legos from Crunchy Chicken’s book (Non-toxic Avenger). I have an excerpt from her book about that on my blog for those interested: http://www.eco-novice.com/2012/01/book-excerpt-non-toxic-avenger-by.html

    • The Soft Landing Sisters
      The Soft Landing Sisters May 2, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

      Thank you Betsy! It’s tough to really nail down what’s a safer plastic and what’s not. But since we have to live in the real world, we want parents to know what their options are. ~Alicia

      • Betsy (Eco-novice) May 2, 2014 at 1:39 pm #

        Absolutely. When you have to go with plastic for whatever reason, it’s good to know what the safer options are.

  5. mindfulmomma May 2, 2014 at 11:47 am #

    Phew! We’ve got a lot of Legos in our house – glad to hear the are still on your safe list!

    • The Soft Landing Sisters
      The Soft Landing Sisters May 2, 2014 at 1:07 pm #

      It’s a nerve wracking job to research all this stuff as a parent, isn’t it Micaela? I’m happy we could ease your mind a little bit 🙂 ~Alicia

  6. john May 2, 2014 at 11:02 pm #

    this article is complete crap, ABS plastic is one of the worst plastics out there

  7. Sparkles May 29, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    Im a bit worried about the 3doodler 3D printer pen ive just purchased which comes with ABS filament sticks, although i use a well ventilated toom to use it, i can smell the vapours which are going right up my nose and was looking at possible PLA filaments instead for my doodles?

    • The Soft Landing Sisters
      The Soft Landing Sisters June 3, 2014 at 9:57 am #

      I totally understand your concern Sparkles. It seems like PLA would be less toxic, but we haven’t researched it officially, so I can’t give a solid opinion. ~Alicia

      • sngbns November 28, 2015 at 9:06 pm #

        Hi there. Any new suggestions between ABS and PLA for 3D pens, please? Or is it best not to buy one in the first place? It’s made my 9 year old son’s gift list and I’ve never heard of them before.
        Thanks so very much for all you do!
        Amber

        • 3dGuy April 21, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

          I work in 3D printing and would advise against using ABS without adequate ventilation. I prefer to print with PLA as it is still not clear exactly what the risks of ABS are but I do know that ABS carries a much higher potential risk than PLA. I most certainly would not expose a child to ABS fumes at close proximity.

  8. Haley birdwell February 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm #

    Can I put a 3D object I created out of ABS plastic into a goldfish bowl as like a decoration? Or will the plastic become harmful and the fish will die?

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  1. Discount on WOD Toys For Kids’ Fitness Play | Spit That Out: The Blog - June 13, 2012

    […] for lead and phthalate levels. The company tells me that the harder plastic is made of ABS (deemed a safer plastic by our friends at The Soft Landing) and the softer plastic is TPE (thermoplastic elastomer), which is a broad term for a category of […]

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