Everyone knows that plants are good because they give us oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. It is less commonly known that some house plants filter toxins out of the air in our homes and places of work. They are so effective that NASA prefers them over high-tech air purifying devices for space stations. Once you have read up on these amazing plants you might not be able to resist finding one for yourself.
NASA Clean Air Study
NASA did a study called “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement.” Around the 1970s it became apparent that sealing buildings shut, for improved efficiency of heating and air conditioning, was making residents and workers sick. Newly created synthetic building materials started off-gassing into the indoor air, which meant that the chemicals were evaporating into the air and stayed there because of a lack of airflow. The air was being filled with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene.
It was the building materials, the furniture and often cleaning products that were causing massive indoor air pollution with hundreds of volatile organics, which do damage on their own and create even more pollution as they react with each other.
Governments then enforced stricter regulations on the amounts of VOCs in products.
NASA did a study on how house plants (and their soil microorganisms) might clean up indoor air pollution, hoping to improve the air in their space stations.
The NASA Clean Air Study was run in collaboration with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America in 1989. NASA was looking for a way to clean the indoor air of space stations and decided to test out house plants. Scientists were already aware that indoor plants absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen but they wanted to know if plants could get rid of toxins too.
The study tested house plants and the 5 most common VOCs, xylene, benzene, trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, toluene and they also tested ammonia. The heaviest of hitters of the plants were the Peace Lilly and the Florists Chrysanthemum as they filtered out all 5 VOCs tested. The Variegated Snake Plant also stands out in that it is the hardest to kill and can handle low light and neglectful owners.
Volatile Organic Compounds
NASA found that some house plants are effective at purifying the air of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that are releasing vapors from materials, a process called off-gassing, into the air.
Lots of odors are VOCs. Most VOCs are extremely bad for human health. The results showed that many house plants do naturally clean the air in an enclosed space, such as a home or an office space. Some plants even absorb mold, allergens and air-born fecal matter.
VOC side effects vary. Medical professionals are concerned that, although you may feel no immediate symptoms, these toxic chemicals might be damaging your health in ways you’re not even aware of. Also, VOCs refer to many different chemicals. Each chemical has its own side effects. Health problems can also depend on how concentrated the VOCs are, the length of time you are exposed and how often you are exposed.
VOCs affect everyone nowadays as they are in so many products we use regularly. VOCs are particularly harmful to babies, children, expecting mothers and the elderly. People with conditions such as Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome are highly sensitive to most non-organic compounds.
Sick Building Syndrome
Modern buildings have extremely efficient heating and air-conditioning and there is not much airflow. Toxins build up and never get circulated out of an open window. Sick building syndrome happens when people get sick for unexplained reasons. The condition gets worse the more time they spend in the building and sometimes gets better when they are away from the building. Some immediate symptoms include headaches, respiratory problems, fatigue, nausea, and dizziness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer and other debilitating diseases.
To cut down on exposure to VOCs, the first and easiest step is to switch to organic cleaning products. After that try to store paint, paint strippers, varnish, glue, carpet shampoo, pesticides, and all other chemicals in the garage or other structure outside the home. Another major change is to buy organic mattresses, especially crib mattresses and mattresses for children. The VOCs noxious fumes from mattresses are surrounding young ones as they sleep for long stretches of time. Schedule a day of the week where you air out the house.
The most famous off-gassing is ‘new car smell’. Basically, it is the emission of chemicals off the materials a product was made of. They are noxious gasses. The off-gassing from a product can carry on for years after purchase, ruining the air quality in your home.
Household products have the worst off-gassing. Because these products are used indoors, the noxious fumes typically stay in the indoor environment. Products such as paint, varnish, pesticides, disinfecting and cleaning products are the most toxic. Pieces of furniture fresh from the factory are also big offenders.
Benzene is a well-known human carcinogen. It is heavier than air so it sinks down low and tends to stay there; making is especially dangerous for children. It is used to make nylon fibers, plastics, rubbers, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Exposure to Benzene causes cancer, bone marrow failure, acute leukemia and cardiovascular disease. In 1948 the American Petroleum Institute made the statement that there was absolutely no safe expose level for benzene. Even the smallest amounts are dangerous.
Indoor areas that contain benzene are enclosed spaces that contain gasoline, glues, solvents, paints, and art supplies and cigarette smoke
Levels of benzene are higher in homes that are close to gas stations and homes that have attached garages.
Chronic and regular exposure to benzene causes acute myeloid leukemia and childhood leukemia along with other forms of cancer.
Short-term side effects of breathing in benzene are similar to getting “high” such as dizziness, confusion, and unconsciousness.
Formaldehyde is found in many products that are indoors, causing massive indoor air pollution. It is in pressed-wood products such as MDF, plywood, and particleboard; meaning it is in furniture such as bookshelves, kitchen cabinets, desks, and beds. It’s also in paint, plastic, leather, mattresses, glue, adhesives, insulation, resins, clothing, many building materials, synthetic fabrics, cleaning products and cosmetics. It is in cigarette smoke, smog and fuel-burning items like gas stoves, and space heaters.
Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer; namely brain cancer, leukemia, and cancer of the nasal sinuses among other types. It might also trigger childhood asthma.
Formaldehyde in the indoor air, at levels higher than 0.1 parts per million, can cause watery eyes, coughing, nausea and skin problems. Indoor air often contains more formaldehyde than outdoor air.
Formaldehyde in cosmetics and lotions can cause an allergic reaction of the skin but it also off-gasses from products into the air.
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is used primarily as an industrial solvent but is in household products as well, such as paint removers, adhesives, spot removers, and rug-cleaning fluids. It is the most common contaminate in groundwater. TCE can enter a home through contaminated water and then off-gasses into the air. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, there is some Trichloroethylene in 9% to 34% of drinking water in the United States and those numbers are continuing to rise.
Human and animal studies have proven that TCE causes cancer such as kidney, cervix, and liver. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, short-term and long-term exposure causes dizziness, euphoria, headaches, confusion, and weakness.
Xylene is a cause for concern because it is in so many common products. It is sometimes in paints, adhesives, varnishes, gasoline, rubber, cement, printing, leathers, pesticides, insecticides, aerosol paints, agricultural chemicals, caulking, epoxy adhesives, floor polishes, herbicides, markers, pet flea and tick products and shoe polish. Xylene vapor is heavier than air and may settle into lower areas.
Symptoms of exposure are headaches, respiratory problems, central nervous system problems, confusion, dizziness and balance problems. Long-term exposure can cause problems with the central nervous system such as dizziness, headaches, tremors, and cardiovascular problems. Exposure can also cause impaired gait (changes in walking), rapid breathing, loss of consciousness, coma, and death. A single, minor exposure to xylene is not likely to cause long-term effects. Xylene is not known to cause cancer.
Xylene sniffing has been used as a way to get high and can cause heart, kidney, brain and muscle damage.
Toluene is found in fingernail polish, adhesives, paint, paint thinners, rubber, lacquers, and leathers. It is also in gasoline, which makes it more likely to be in homes near high traffic areas. Toluene causes indoor air pollution where paint thinners or solvents are used or where smoking is allowed.
Toluene enters groundwater at landfills and underground storage tanks can leak and contaminate the soil.
The majority of toluene you have ingested leaves your body within a day. With daily exposure, a small amount will accumulate in fat tissue.
Low doses may cause an effect on the brain and nerves. Low doses can cause temporary problems like dizziness, headaches or unconsciousness.
More serious effects come with abusing (huffing) toluene for its euphoric effects. Exposure may also cause liver and kidney damage.
Moderate, day-to-day, exposure can cause tiredness, weakness and memory loss.
Children are exposed to toluene by family use of glues, adhesives, or cleaning solvents. Toluene is heavier than air and so sinks down to children’s height.
Reduce your risk of exposure by only using toluene-containing products by using them in well-ventilated areas.
Children and adolescents have used toluene-containing products to get high and so these products should be properly sealed and stored to discourage this behavior.
Ammonia is not a Volatile Organic Compound but NASA tested it during the Clean Air Study.
Ammonia is in many commercial cleaning products as well as many pharmaceutical products. It is used to manufacture plastics, fabrics, dyes, pesticides and other products. It is common in household and industrial cleaning products. In its concentrated form, it is caustic and can burn the skin. Even in small concentrations ammonia can be irritating to the eyes, lungs, and skin.
Because ammonia has such a strong odor you will typically smell it before it will do you harm. However, people will asthma and chemical sensitivities might be affected by low levels of ammonia. Ammonia exposure does not cause cancer.
Combing the information we have today on VOCs, off-gassing, and Sick Building Syndrome is inspiring enough to justify spending a little money on some plants. The first thing to consider is where you have the room for a plant where it will have the appropriate amount of sunlight. For example, you can’t put an Aloe Vera in a windowless bathroom and you can’t put a Variegated Snake Plant in bright, direct sunlight.
Aloe Vera is a sun-loving succulent that is very easy to care for. It purifies the air of formaldehyde and benzene. It is easy to care for as long as it is getting enough sunlight. It can survive not being watered regularly. Aloe vera is active at night so keep it in a bedroom so that it will be delivering you oxygen while you sleep.
The Banana Plants filter out formaldehyde. And growing a dwarf variety indoors makes for a great conversation piece, as it is rather rare. It has specific needs such as; a large container, a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.0, and 12 hours of bright sunlight a day.
This plant filters out formaldehyde, xylene, and toluene. The drawbacks to the Areca Palm are that it can be expensive and is sometimes not as attractive as it ages; some fronds (leaves) turn yellow and droop. It doesn’t tolerate neglect and needs to be in a sunny area.
Barberton Daisy (pictured in the first photo)
The Barberton Daisy filters out benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. It is a bit tricky to grow indoors for long periods of time, it is usually purchased and kept for one blooming season and then discarded. To keep one indoors for a long period of time, give it bright light and cool temperatures, below 70F.
The Bamboo Palm is reported to be the best at filtering toluene, formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, and xylene. In a room with bright light it can grow from 4 to 12 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide so make sure you have space for it before you buy it. It likes bright light but is very rugged and can handle low-light conditions as well. Bamboo Palm is really a plant to get excited about if you are improving the indoor air quality of your home or work place.
The Chinese Evergreen filters out benzene and formaldehyde. For a tropical plant, it requires very little maintenance. If you get the soil conditions right, it can handle low light, drought and dry air. Wipe the dust off the leaves occasionally.
The Boston Fern removes formaldehyde and xylene from the air. It is one of the smaller plants on NASA’s list, growing 1 to 3 feet tall and 1 to 4 feet wide. Boston Ferns need bright, indirect light so it should not be put on a windowsill. Keep its soil moist and fertilize once a month.
Devils Ivy/ Golden Pathos
Devil’s Ivy eliminates benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene, formaldehyde and carbon monoxide. It grows quickly and likes bright, indirect light but can also tolerate low light. In the right growing conditions, the vines can reach six to ten feet long. It can’t be trained to grow on a trellis but the vines can be twined around supports to make it appear to be growing upwards. You can let it grow as vines or trim it back for a bushier plant. It is great for people who don’t have a green thumb and sometimes forget to water. It likes to be fertilized monthly.
Cornstalk Dracaena filters out benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. It is very hardy and can tolerate low light and forgotten watering’s. There are typically three stalks growing out of one pot, each stalk at a different height.
The Red-edged Dracaena is a purifying powerhouse, filtering out formaldehyde, xylene, benzene, and toluene. It is an exciting choice of plant for your home or office. If you are looking for a bold statement for your living room, this shrub can reach 15 feet tall and can tolerate just moderate amounts of light. It can handle many different types of soil, only needs to be watered twice a week and requires little fertilizer.
The Flamingo Lily filters out formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, and ammonia, which is found in so many household cleaning products. Another bonus is that it is a flowering plant with salmon-pink blooms. It has high humidity requirements and should be kept near a kitchen or bathroom and should be misted every few days. As for temperature, keep your Flamingo Lily consistently warm, placed away from air vents. Other requirements are that it needs bright, indirect and needs fertilizer every 3 to 4 weeks.
Variegated Snake Plant
The Snake Plant, also called Mother-in-Laws Tongue, purifies the air of toluene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, benzene, xylene. It is a striking plant with multiple, straight leaves that reach upwards so it is great for narrow spaces. It is fantastic for absentee owners, maintaining its good looks through weeks of inattention. They are great for low light, require little fertilizer, have no humidity needs and are fine with normal household temperatures.
Kimberly Queen Fern
The Kimberly Queen Fern filters formaldehyde, xylene and toluene. It is more compact and tidier than other ferns but has high care requirements. It has needs such as high humidity, bright, indirect light and needs to be watered every 2 to 3 days. Never let the soil dry out completely.
The English Ivy filters out toluene, formaldehyde, xylene, trichloroethylene, benzene, and formaldehyde. It also filters out airborne fecal matter. It is hard to resist having cleaning power like that in your home. It spreads easily and is very low-maintenance and is the most common type of ivy grown indoors. English Ivy needs bright light and should be fertilized once a month.
Janet Craig is an immensely popular plant in homes and offices, and for good reason. It filters out 3 of the VOCs in the NASA clean air study, formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene. Beyond that impressive claim, Janet Craig is one of the hardiest plants around, tolerating low light and neglect. The plant has no need for humidity and only needs to be fertilized twice a year. When purchasing, be sure that there are between 3 to 5 stalks in one pot, giving the plant a fuller look.
This plant filters out an impressive number of Volatile Organic Compounds, trichloroethylene, benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, xylene, and ammonia.
Chrysanthemums are often given as a gift because of their beautiful blooms and low maintenance requirements. They come ready in the right sized pot with the appropriate soil and only need to be watered when the soil feels dry to the touch. They bloom for several weeks and they can be kept after the blooms are spent because of their vibrant foliage.
When choosing to give a Chrysanthemum as a present, you can be sure you have made the right choice as you are providing a loved one with something priceless – clean air.
Dracaena Warneckii filters out formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene. It is another of the very hardy plants and tolerates low light and missed watering’s. Allow the top of the soil to dry out before watering. Warneckii should be placed in a quiet corner with low foot traffic; otherwise, the foliage will be easily damaged.
NASA’s clean air study brought to light the problems with modern building technologies. It became apparent that the off-gassing of Volatile Organic Compounds into the air was causing cancer and other serious health problems. NASA tested common house plants to see which ones could purify the air in space stations but anyone can use the results from the study to improve the air in their home or office. There are some truly fascinating plants that filter out so many VOCs and take such little care that there is no excuse to not bring them into your home or office. Buy a Variegated Snake Plant because it filters out all 5 VOCs that were tested, it takes up little space and can survive a lot of neglect and poor conditions. Consider as well the English Ivy because it filters out all 5 VOCs and air-born fecal matter. Do not forget to give the Florists Chrysanthemum as a gift whenever possible because it too filters out all 5 VOCs and requires only watering. Bring plants into your life and they will reward you with some of the freshest air money can buy.
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