How to Obliterate Indoor Air Pollutants With Plants

When you hear the words "air pollution",  you probably envision tall chimneys belching clouds of black smoke into the air. 

But did you know that the air inside our homes can be polluted, too?

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According to the EPA, "the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities." What makes it worse is that most of us spend 90% of our time indoors in that polluted air. Scary statistics!

How does this happen? Is there anything I can do about it? Well, yes, thanks to NASA and plants, there is. Read on...

What Does NASA Have to Do With Indoor Air Pollution?

international space station

"International Space Station, ISS"  from pixabay.com licensed under CC by CC0 1.0

Back in the 1980's, NASA conducted a Clean Air Study to test the effects of 15 different houseplants on indoor air pollutants. They were researching ways to clear the air of toxic chemicals in space stations. Their focus was on three toxic chemicals commonly found in indoor air that are also known to cause cancer and birth defects.

The results were pretty amazing:

​They found that certain houseplants can remove up to 87% of the pollutants they tested -  within 24 hours!

How Do Plants Purify Air?

If you were paying attention in school during your biology class, you'll know that plants absorb carbon dioxide through pores in their leaves during photosynthesis. They take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen, remember? 

​As it turns out, plants absorb many kinds of toxic gases right along with the carbon dioxide. So they're not only making oxygen for us to breathe. They're also removing impurities from the air we're breathing in.

Very cool!​

What Kind of Pollutants Do Plants Get Rid of?

Those three toxic chemicals that NASA tested the plants on are benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene. 

Now you're probably wondering how these toxic chemicals get into our homes in the first place. They're part of a group of chemicals known as Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs. Volatile means that they evaporate easily, which is why they tend to be in the air we breathe indoors.

And to make matters worse...

These VOCs are in myriads of products that I can almost guarantee you have in your house right now.

Here's a short list:​

Benzene is in pesticides, detergents, synthetic fabrics, paints, inks, gasoline, oils. and some plastics.

Formaldehyde is in plywood, pressed-wood products, foam insulation, fire retardants, grocery bags, fabric softener, carpet cleaner, some cosmetics, cigarette smoke, and natural gas.

Trichloroethylene  is used in dry cleaning products, degreasers, printing inks, varnishes, paints, lacquers, adhesives and glues.

The solution is simple. Just completely avoid all of these types of products, right?

No. It's not so easy. ​You might be able to eliminate some of these things in your home, but all of them? That's just not realistic. So....

Houseplants to the rescue!​

Which Houseplants Are the Best for Cleaning Indoor Air?

Really, any kind of plant is going to do your air some good, but certain plants do a better job than others.

Of the houseplants that NASA tested, all of them were able to absorb formaldehyde. Some could absorb formaldehyde plus one other VOC. But 9 of them are superstars - able to absorb all three of the VOCs we've been talking about.

If your main reason for having plants is to clean your indoor air, choose one or more from this list of Air Cleaning Superstars:

English Ivy

"Hedera helix Leaves" by and (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man). Location credit to the Chanticleer Garden. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Peace lily

peace lily

"Peace Lily Houseplant" by UshaJ licensed under CC by 3.0

Variegated snake plant (mother-in-law's tongue)

"Snake Plant" by Martin Olsson licensed under CC by 3.0

Red-edged dracaena

"Dracaena marginata 'Tricolor'" by Digigalos licensed under CC by 3.0

Cornstalk dracaena

"Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans 'Massangeana')" by Mokkie licensed under CC by 3.0

Barberton daisy (gerbera daisy)

gerbera daisy

"Gerber Daisy3" by Hardyplants licensed under CC by CC0 1.0

Florist's chrysanthemum

"Chrysanthemum flowers" by Mokkie licensed under CC by 3.0

Janet Craig dracaena

"Dracaena Deremensis Janet Craig Flowering" by Nickjhowe licensed under CC by 3.0

Warnecki dracaena

"Dracaena.deremensis.Warneckii" by LucaLuca licensed under CC by 3.0

Honorable Mention: Aloe vera

aloe vera

"Aloe vera 'chinensis'" by Manuel licensed under CC by 2.0

Although not one of the "superstars", I have to give an honorable mention award to aloe vera.  This humble plant clears both benzene and formaldehyde from the air plus it can be used for medicinal purposes to sooth and heal burns, stings, and skin irritations. Every home should have one.

Are Any of These Plants Toxic to Dogs & Cats?

Unfortunately, yes. All of them are toxic to dogs and cats except for the Barberton daisy. Please be careful to keep them out of the reach of your pets.

How Many Plants Do I Need?

To effectively clean the air, you'll need 1 plant per 100 square feet of home or office space. 

So if you have a 2,000-square-foot house, you'll need 20 plants. 

That may be a bit more than you bargained for. If you can't manage that many plants, you could consider concentrating your efforts on the rooms you use the most, especially the bedrooms.

One final tip:

To maximize the ability of your plants to carry out their air cleaning duties, keep their leaves free of dust. Yes, you have to clean your plants! 

But if you take care of them, they'll take care of you and make your home a healthier and more beautiful place to live.​ Everybody wins!

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Marge Sweigart

I'm a healthy living blogger who loves to help people who care about having a healthy home environment make smart choices and save money. Read more

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