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12
Sep

House Plants as Air Purifiers: Plants absorb formaldehyde, benzene and other toxic chemicals

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If you suffer from multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), sick building syndrome, allergies, asthma, or other respiratory problems you may own or be thinking of buying an air purifier to purify the air in your home and relieve your symptoms.

Modern air purifiers are certainly extremely efficient at removing troublesome chemicals from the air with their HEPA, carbon and zeolite filters. They do have their drawbacks however. They can be expensive to buy, the filters need replacing periodically, they can be noisy, and they add to your electricity bills.

There is an alternative however that many of you may not have considered......house plants! That's right, research has demonstrated that certain plants are highly effective natural air purifiers. Not only that but they are cheaper to buy than their manmade counterparts, don't require filter changes, are silent, use no electricity, are much more attractive, and may even contribute to our happiness!

One major study in this area was conducted by NASA (the US space agency) and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) and went by the name 'Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement'. Indoor air pollution is now recognised as a major threat to human health and well-being and this study concentrated on methods for reducing this pollution in the home, focusing on formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene.

 

Formaldehyde
A ubiquitous chemical in the modern home. It is used in the construction of buildings in the form of urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI) and is also present in considerable quantities in particle board and pressed wood used so often in fitted furniture (e.g. kitchen cupboards and counters, bedroom wardrobes/closets) as well as the ever-popular flat pack furniture from modern home furnishing superstores. Other sources of formaldehyde include household cleaning products, fire retardants in soft furnishings, carpet backings and many consumer paper products treated with urea-formaldehyde resins, including grocery bags, waxed papers, facial tissues and paper towels.

Formaldehyde irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system and is known to exacerbate asthma and trigger attacks. It can also cause headaches and trigger symptoms in those with MCS.

Best formaldehyde-removing plants*: bamboo palm, dracaena 'Janet Craig', mother-in-law's tongue, dracaena marginata, peace lily, green spider plant, and golden pathos.

 

Benzene
Found in considerable amounts in tobacco smoke, commonly used as a solvent, and found in many common items such as paints, inks, oils, plastics, rubber, household cleaning products and petrol/gasoline.

Chronic exposure to even relatively low levels of benzene is associated with headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, nervousness, psychological disturbances and diseases of the blood system, including anemia and bone marrow diseases.

Best benzene-removing plants*: gerbera daisy, pot mum, peace lily, bamboo palm, dracaena warneckei, english ivy and mother-in-law's tongue.

 

Trichloroethylene
A widely used industrial solvent that is often found in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives.

Trichloroethylene is a central nervous system depressant and acts like alcohol on acute exposure causing  headache, dizziness, and confusion and progressing with increasing exposure to unconsciousness. It is also known to cause liver and kidney problems with prolonged expsoure and is now knwon to be cancer causing.

Best trichloroethylene-removing plants*:  gerbera daisy, dracaena marginata, peace lily (spathiphyllum), dracaena 'Janet Craig' and bamboo palm

*In order of effectiveness according to the NASA/ALCA research

 

Another toxic chemical found in indoor air and absorbed by certain plants is:

Carbon Monoxide 
Mainly produced from sources of combustion such as open fires, gas stoves, central heating boilers etc. All gas appliances in the home should be routinely checked for carbon monoxide output. Carbon monoxide (CO) is also present in high concentrations in cigarette smoke.

Low level exposure causes dizziness and headaches while more acute exposure can lead to death since CO prevents the delivery of oxygen to the body's cells.

Best carbon monoxide-removing plants: bamboo palm, spider plant, golden pathos, dracaena janet craig, dracaena marginata, snake plant, peace lily, chrysanthemum, English ivy and heartleaf philodendron.

 

How many plants are needed?

NASA and the ALCA estimated that one 6 inch plant was needed per 100 square feet of interior space to effectively remove the chemicals above and potentially many others. This equates to only 1 or 2 plants for most rooms in an average home. It was also found, not surprisingly that the plants are most effective at removing chemicals from the air when they are in optimal conditions for their health and growth.

...so, keep your plants healthy andthey will help to keep you healthy!

 

Reference: Wolverton BC Douglas WL and Bounds K (1989) A study of interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement Science Retrieved from http://hdl.handle.net/2060/19930072988

 

Learn more from Dr. B.C. Wolverton:

 

How To Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home Or Office: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office How To Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home Or Office: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office

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People in this conversation

  • Hi Linda,

    Many thanks for making this point, it's something I really should have mentioned in the original blog post! Many people with environmental illness are sensitive to molds so if this is a problem for you, air purifying plants may not be the best option. On the other hand some people with chemical sensitivities are unable to find an electronic air purifier which is effective and which doesn't itself cause symptoms. It's a matter of trial and error as most things are for those of us with environmental illness. Plants are just another option.

    Comment last edited on about 2 years ago by Maff
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