Many homeowners and apartment dwellers, without realizing it, may be suffering from indoor air pollution. All of those chemical cleaners in your home, for example, may be releasing harmful toxic contaminants and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. And everything from cooking fumes to secondhand tobacco smoke may be releasing tiny particulate matter into the air. Over time, all of that harmful indoor air pollution can lead to a long list of health problems, ranging from allergic reactions and asthma to chronic respiratory problems and even cancer.
The good news, however, is that there are some natural remedies to this problem of indoor air pollution. For example, indoor plants have proven to be very helpful in improving indoor air quality. Simply stated, arranging a few leafy plants around your home will do more than boost the aesthetic appeal of your home – it will also help to clean the surrounding air.
Until recently, the whole process of how this worked was a bit of a mystery. However, a number of scientific studies from the likes of NASA, Penn State, the University of Georgia and the University of Technology Sydney have helped to explain some of the amazing properties of indoor plants when it comes to fighting indoor air pollution.
Plants are remarkably proficient at taking chemicals from the air and converting them into energy. In your high school biology class, you probably studied the process of photosynthesis, in which plants convert light from the sun and carbon dioxide into chemical energy. That’s why plants grow better in sunlight – they are literally transforming energy from the sun into a source of energy.
Well, plants are able to do more than just convert carbon dioxide – they can also help to absorb some of the most harmful VOCs that are causing all the indoor air pollution problems in the first place. Plants are particularly adept at removing benzene (found in plastics, fabrics, and pesticides) and formaldehyde (found in cosmetics, dish detergents and fabric softeners).
And that’s not all – plants also release phytochemicals into the surrounding air that help to stop the spread of mold spores and bacteria. Place a plant or two into your washroom, for example, and you can immediately improve the quality of air in your home. Moreover, tiny microorganisms found in the soil of potted plants can help to neutralize some of the VOCs found in the air.
Based on extensive studies, researchers have determined that “leafy” plants work best. This should be intuitively obvious: the more leaves, the more surface pores to absorb chemicals, and so the more powerful is the plant. Some of the best indoor plants to remove indoor air pollution include Boston ferns, peace lilies, Japanese royal ferns, English ivy, and spider plants.
In one study at the University of Technology Sydney, researchers actually quantified how well indoor plants worked at removing indoor air pollution. What the researchers found was that placing a single peace lily in a room could boost a room’s humidity by 5 percent – enough to prevent dry throats and noses during the dry winter months. Boston ferns, they found, were excellent at removing formaldehydes. And placing just three Janet Craig plants into a room of moderate size could reduce the number of volatile organic compounds in the room by a staggering 70 percent.
And that’s not the only study to document the indoor air pollution-fighting qualities of leafy plants. For example, even NASA has studied indoor pollution, focusing on three harmful chemicals: benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. As a general rule of thumb, says NASA, it’s optimal to have at least 1 plant for 100 square feet of home living space. And, noted NASA, each of these plants should be in a potted container of approximately 6 to 8 inches in diameter.
So, if it’s good enough for NASA – the space agency that put a man on the moon – it’s good enough for your home. If you’re serious about reducing indoor air pollution in your home, there are several steps that you can take. Most importantly, you choose the right plants. For example, a cactus (without any leaves) is simply not going to do the same job as an extremely leafy plant.
Secondly, you can start to map out where to place plants strategically around the home. If you use the 1 plant for every 100 square feet rule, then a home with 1,000 square feet would require 10 plants. And a home with an even larger footprint, say 2,000 square feet, would require 20 plants. Or, you could simply use the rule of thumb that most rooms in your home are about 100 square feet in size (some, like your living room, might be considerably larger), and then simply choose as many plants as there are rooms in your home. Since your kitchen and bathrooms are likely to be some of the biggest culprits when it comes to indoor air pollution, you’ll probably want to think about placing at least one plant nearby.
Then, of course, you will also have to think about the care and feeding of those plants. It’s best to position them near the window if they need a lot of light. And you’ll need to water them frequently to keep them healthy and vibrant. And, to make sure all those VOC-absorbing microorganisms in the soil are performing, you might want to think about changing the soil every now and then, or perhaps even adding some nutrients to your plant soil.
By taking one simple step – adding indoor plants to your home – you can take a much larger step towards protecting your home from the threat of indoor air pollution. The problem with indoor air pollution is that much of it – like those harmful VOCs – are largely invisible. You might be able to recognize cigarette smoke, but it’s a lot harder to recognize benzene or formaldehyde. And that’s precisely what makes indoor air pollution such a pernicious problem. If it’s not right there in front of our eyes, we might assume it doesn’t exist. But as study after study has documented, indoor air pollution is a growing problem with very serious health consequences if left unchecked.