Is Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) Plastic Toxic?

Is ABS plastic toxic?
ABS plastic resin seems to be stable and non-leaching. It’s the same with other plastics like AS or SAN which are used in Brita pitchers and many mixing bowls, dishes, cups and cutlery.

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

    1. 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

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

  2. 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?

      1. 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!

        1. 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.

  3. How do you know that the ABS plastic used to make your high chairs, legos, etc. is free of flame retardants and is not being made from recycled ABS that was made out of recycled flame retardant soaked electronics ABS pieces?

  4. The FDA ruling regarding polymers…

    an excerpt regarding ABS…Acrylonitrile/butadiene/styrene copolymer identified in this section may be safely used as an article or component of articles intended for use with all foods, except those containing alcohol, under conditions of use E, F, and G described in table 2 of 176.170(c) of this chapter.

  5. Sparkles; if you are worried about breathing any fumes/ vapors, may I recommend getting a RESPIRATOR mask. They usually range from 30-40 dollars. Beware though, different filters are made for different applications. Some are made for dust, some are made for asbestos. I recommend you do your research on what filter would work best for you, but off the top of my head a vapor filter seems like it would suit you. Don’t forget to “test” your mask by placing your hands around different areas and breathing thus making sure it’s airtight. Also it is important to change your filters after each use or by an “hourly use” if the package says it’s okay. Filters usually range from 20-30 dollars depending on the type. Unless you had many problems before with finding stuff to fit you because you’re either extra small or very large, a medium sized respirator should fit you fine.

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