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Is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Plastic Toxic?

by Non-Toxic Ninjas in Toxic Chemicals, Toxic Plastic, Toys & Misc
April 30, 2014 19 comments
Is ABS plastic toxic?
It's found in highchairs, toys , 3D printing material and LEGOs, but is it safe or is it toxic? #nontoxic #safetoys

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