Tropical rainforests are the “lungs of the planet.”
According to NASA, if we scale waaaaay down, houseplants can function like the lungs of your home, playing a significant role in improving the air quality.
Let’s answer the big question first. Why was NASA studying houseplants? The study was initially undertaken to examine how to improve air in enclosed environments such as “future space structures.” The results were also intended to help find solutions to “sick building syndrome,” a condition thought to be brought on by spending excessive time in a building or other enclosed space with poor air quality.
One of the potential problems space structures and sick buildings share is the off gassing from construction materials: the giving off of a chemical, especially a harmful one, in the form of a gas. Carpeting, paint and furnishings can also contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can off gas, creating an additional concern.
(Off gassing isn’t always bad. If you want to ripen green tomatoes, place a ripe banana in a brown paper bag with the tomatoes. The ethylene, naturally released from the banana, will speed up the ripening process for the tomatoes.)
3 Air Pollutants to Watch Out For
Three chemical compounds were examined in NASA’s study on air purifying capabilities of houseplants: benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde.
Benzene, most commonly used as a solvent, is also found in paints, oils, plastics and rubber (such as erasers on pencils). This compound can cause skin irritation, and there is evidence that it contributes to more serious health conditions as well.
Trichloroethylene primarily functions as a metal degreaser and a main element in the dry cleaning process, but it can also be found in paints, varnishes and adhesives. The Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS] and the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] both list this compound as a known carcinogen.
Formaldehyde is found in or is used to process a wide variety of items you encounter every day, from foam insulation and particle board to paper towels and permanent press clothing. Formaldehyde is most frequently found to irritate the eye, nose and throat, and the EPA has classified formaldehyde as a “probable human carcinogen.”
How Plants Can Help: Start With These 4
Plants can absorb these chemicals and decrease your risk of being harmed. So, what plants are most suitable for (your) space?
According to NASA, the Golden Pothos, the Peace lily, English Ivy and Janet Craig are among the most effective air purifying plants.
1. Golden Pothos
The Golden Pothos has a great deal of benefits. It tolerates low light, forgives infrequent watering, does a bang-up job cleaning the air, and you can “grow a clone” of the plant by simply sticking some clippings of the plant in water and letting them root for a couple of months. In other words, it’s the ideal option for people with a bad track record with plants.
2. Peace Lilies
Peace Lilies can be a bit finicky, but if you hit that sweet spot in terms of sunlight and watering, these plants will thrive and provide a lovely home accent for years. They love filtered sunlight and would prefer to be under-watered rather than over-watered.
3. English Ivy
English Ivy is most commonly thought of as an outdoor plant, but several varieties can be grown indoors. This plant likes bright light, but not direct sunlight. It can even survive under artificial fluorescent lights, such as those found in most offices.
For the more adventurous reader, ivies can be trained to grow on topiaries. If you choose to grow an ivy indoors, opt for a smaller plant. If given too much space, ivies will take all of it and then some. Do not over-water.
4. Janet Craig
I confess I was baffled when I ran into the plant name ‘Janet Craig’ in NASA’s study. Nonetheless, when I plugged the name into a search engine, the plant images that came up were very familiar.
While it belongs to the scientific genus Dracaena, my family always called it a ‘corn plant’. P.S. You can even ignore it a little. Don’t tell anyone I said that.
The Green Solution
Are these plants as efficient and fast-acting as a pricey name-brand air purifier? No, but they make less noise, they cost significantly less, and make your home more cozy, naturally. In some cases, plants may not be as effective against air pollution, dust, and odors. You can always find a good air purifier to help stabilize the climate in your home.
Time to take a page from NASA: “If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.”
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