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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  • clv

    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

  • john

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

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

  • Dennis

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

  • 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:

    • 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

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

  • mindfulmomma

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

    • 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

  • john

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

  • Sparkles

    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?

    • 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

        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!

        • 3dGuy

          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.

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