Let’s clear the air

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You can call this my public service message for the day. Did you know that some plants do more than just look pretty?  They can actually contribute to cleaner air in the home and a improve your “brain power.”  

Indoor air often contains volatile chemicals that are given off by paint, pressed wood products, carpeting, adhesives, etc.–all commonly found in buildings and building materials. People who suffer from “sick building syndrome” often find some relief when plants are present.

Proximity is everything when you’re looking for cleaning power from your plants. A good-sized plant or two can help freshen a work station. I plunked down a beautiful Rex begonia beside my laptop and felt instantly inspired.

The second thing it did–or I imagined it did–was to help make me feel good. Since I moved ole Rex next to my computer I notice less eye irritation and my morning sneezes have all but disappeared.

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Above – my napatorium is healthier since I added plants.

Scientists at the John C. Stennis Space Center in southern Mississippi found that plants can purify air. B. C. Wolverton and his team measured the effects of various houseplants on the presence of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) including formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and xylene.

It turned out that a number of plants, including the peace lily, are pretty good at absorbing VOCs, translocating the chemicals to their roots and breaking them down. A worthy deed, since formaldehyde and/or numerous other VOCS are a natural byproduct of many of the ingredients of modern life–plywood, particleboard, carpeting, synthetic fabrics and plastics, to name the most common. Even higher on Wolverton’s good-plant list were the areca palm, lady palm, rubber plant, English ivy, Boston fern. The spider plant, which has often been linked with air-purifying properties, wasn’t quite as efficient.

Wolverton found that one of the factors influencing VOC-removal rate has to do with the rate of transpiration–that is, how much water evaporates from a plant’s leaves. As the plant absorbs water through its roots, air is pulled into the root zone, where microorganisms facilitate the breaking down of the chemicals into sources of food and energy. That would help account for why the peace lily, which thirsts for a lot of water, is so good at what it does.

Still, the best of the air-cleaning plants can remove 1,000 to 1,800 micrograms of VOC per hour, the studies show, but that equates to less than two milligrams of bad stuff. Can people actually tell the difference? A Norwegian study found that office workers whose spaces had plants reported 23 percent fewer complaints of fatigue, stuffy noses, coughing and eye irritation than workers who had no plants nearby. No doubt helping alleviate discomfort was the fact that plants also increase the humidity level of a room to a more comfortable 30 to 60 percent.

Science has also been busy measuring some intangibles. A Texas study showed that workers are better able to solve problems and think of new ideas when plants are around. A Washington State University study found that people who performed a stressful computer task had 12 percent quicker response times and lower systolic blood pressure when plants were around. In fact, in some cases plants don’t have to be immediately present; hospital patients recover a little faster from surgery and require less pain medication with just a view of a garden.

But that’s another story. There are plenty of studies showing that people often report feeling less stressed when there are only pictures of plants or nature around. What tangible things do plants do when they’re present? Studies have shown that people feel more attentive, think a little more clearly and possibly even more innovatively, when plants are around. They report feeling less stressed.

Researchers seem to be finding out that plants not only help remove airborne chemicals and dust, but they may help us feel generally better. Are we making too much of what plants can do? Read on:

Green comfort: Many common houseplants (shown here, golden pothos and dieffenbachia) are adept at raising humidity and reducing indoor air pollutants.

Air Cleaners at Their Best

If you want to help freshen your indoor air, here are some points to keep in mind:

  • Plants aren’t a panacea. You can’t offset the effect of polyurethane with even two dozen areca palms. Plants, no matter how many you have or what kind, are no substitute for good ventilation and, more important, eliminating or reducing the source of the pollution whenever possible.
  • Plants aren’t powerful vacuum cleaners that suck contaminants from across a large room. Put them near where you spend a lot of time–by your computer, in the kitchen, beside a comfortable chair.
  • Over-watering or a continuously damp soil surface leads to the production of mold spores. Place an inert material such as pea gravel on the surface of your potted plants or use a hydroponic (growing in water, not soil) system.
  • Keep your houseplants as vigorous as possible. The healthier they are, the better job they’ll do at reducing air pollutants.
  • Dracaena ranks high in the ability to remove formaldehyde from the air.

    Great Green Air Cleaners

    Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)
    Lady palm (Rhapis excelsa)
    Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
    Rubber plant (Ficus elastica)
    Dracaena ‘Janet Craig’ (Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’)
    Pygmy date palm (Phoenix roebelenii)
    Fig ‘Alii’ (Ficus macleilandii ‘Alii’)
    Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)
    Peace lily (Spathiphyllum sp.)
    Corn plant (Dracaena fragrans)
    Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum)
    Florist mum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
    Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)

    Note: Some plants–such as golden pothos, dieffenbachia, some philodendrons and dracaenas, and peace lily–can be toxic to dogs; depending on the variety of plant and the size and weight of the dog, effects can range from mild oral irritation to poisoning. If you have a dog that likes to nibble, place these plants out of reach.

    4 thoughts on “Let’s clear the air

    1. Emily—–after reading this fascinating article I may have to make a change! Would you believe—–I have NO house plants——just don’t care for them. In fact with all the plants that I have in my garden——I never cut any and bring them into the house. All my friends are welcome to all the blooms that I have outside if they want them————-but, the idea of a plant being inside the house is not appealing to me. Sooooooo, for health reasons I may have to learn to love the plants inside my house as much as I do the ones outside.

    2. I was surfing around to find more personal opinions on this issue this evening when I came upon your really useful article…thanks a million for writing this. I will definitely be keeping an eye on your blog and visiting again to read new articles.By the way how long have you been keeping a blog? :)

    3. Hi Dorothy – Been doing it for two years – kind of “therapy” for me – get to vent about things I would never be passionate about in public. I also do a weekly column for area newspapers which keeps me focused since I recently retired. Thanks for your kind comments….

      Emily

    4. This website looks great and reads even better! You share some great opinions and insight here. Always looking for motivating blogs to keep mine going!

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