We all remember learning in science class that plants “breathe” by taking in carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, which is why forests are so important in maintaining the delicate balance of the earth’s atmosphere.
But did you know that certain tropical houseplants can also remove and process other, more harmful, chemicals from the air inside your home?
Toxic Chemicals in Household Air
Homes and office buildings today are often more polluted than the outdoors.
Modern buildings are tightly sealed and insulated to make them energy-efficient, and they’re also full of synthetic materials that emit harmful gases and chemicals into the air.
The result is a sealed bubble of unclean air that can lead to what is known as “Sick Building Syndrome.” Some of the most common indoor pollutants are:
- Formaldehyde: Commonly used in a number of items including particleboard, pressed wood, foam insulation, cleaning products, and treated paper or fabric. If your home or office contains particle-board furniture, grocery bags, tissues, paper towels, or anything that has been treated to make it stiffer, wrinkle-resist, fire retardant, or water-repellent, then you’re likely to have formaldehyde in the air.
- Benzene: A solvent used in manufacturing paints, inks, plastics, rubber, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and detergents.
- Trichloroethane: Can be found in adhesives, varnishes, paints, and used in dry-cleaning.
At the very least, chemicals like these can irritate the eyes and skin, lead to allergic reactions, and cause headaches.
At worst, they’ve been linked to more serious problems including asthma, cancer, anemia, organ damage, and birth defects.
Given the pervasive presence of these chemicals in our homes, it can be difficult to create an environment that is free of them.
Research by NASA and ALCA
In the late 1980s, a two-year research study was conducted by NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) to investigate ways to create healthy, breathable environments in outer space.
They found that certain tropical plants, commonly used as houseplants, were quite effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethane from the air and replacing it with breathable oxygen.
All plants provide some benefit to air quality, but their research showed that tropical plants (grown as houseplants in cooler climates) are particularly effective at processing gases and chemicals.
Because they grow in dense rainforests with very little light, they have evolved to be very efficient at photosynthesis, which includes the absorption of gases from the air.
In addition, as plants transpire (emit water from the leaves), air is drawn down around the roots, where root microbes quickly adapt and begin “eating” the harmful chemicals that are absorbed.
The result was a list of recommended plants for reducing toxic chemicals in indoor environments.
Most are common houseplants that you should be able to find at your local garden center. Two of the recommended plants (Gerbera Daisy and Pot Mum) are ornamental blooming plants that are frequently brought indoors for seasonal decorations.