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Cleaning Inside Air Using Houseplants - and The Winner Is ...

Posted on October 21, 2016 by Jeanne Roberts There have been 0 comments

We all know they do it, not only while we are home, but during the day while we are at work.

Up to now, though, we never knew quite how – or even how well – living plants filtered air. Even scientists weren’t sure, though they suspected it had a lot to do with photosynthesis, which is the way a plant breathes.

Like so many other things in life, it was one of those “leave it to wonder” things that seem almost magical, like the water that boils when we leave for a minute, or an invasion of ants into our kitchens overnight.

What Is In Inside Air

Pollutants called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, contaminate inside air, making it hard to breathe, sleep and work. They may even cause long-lasting health effects.

These VOCs are particulate – in fact, all odors are particulate – and run the gamut from baby’s first fart to the slow burn of an LED appliance timer. The health effects include lung disorders, liver damage, kidney damage, cancer, and certain developmental delays.

Another truly scary thing about particulates is their potential, if they are very small, to enter the brain by going through membranes in the nasal cavities that serve as filters.

Volatile organic compounds are emitted from a wide variety of ordinary items via a process known as “outgassing”.  Think of this as breathing for inanimate objects, and if the above invasion-of-the-brain revelation doesn’t keep you awake nights, this one should!

Clothing, furniture, mattresses, carpets, and many new hard-flooring materials emit VOCs in greater or less amounts. The greatest offenders are, of course, the highly odoriferous chemicals found in particle board, wood finishes, paints, and dry-cleaned clothing.  Aerosols are also a big cause for concern, even the ones that smell like they ought to be good for us!

Other more or less stinky objects around your home or office include soft plastics, rubber, floor wax, cleaning compounds, cosmetics, some personal care items, and even some food additives like monosodium glutamate, or MSG, and chemicals used to treat public water supplies.

These are closely followed by the ureas (yes, literally, urine) used to make insulating foam, some mattress and cushion foams, and the stain-fighting finishes on fabrics applied by the manufacturer.

The Best of the Best

Since the 1980s, scientists have been aware of plants’ remarkable ability to breathe in our polluted air and exhale clean, purified oxygen. Testing a variety of plants in various sealed-room situations, these scientists obtained clear proof that plants actually did remove volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, from the air (both inside and out).

Only recently has science been able to figure out which ones are fastest and/or best at eliminating a wide range of  VOCs, and which ones are basically “VOC assassins”, targeting specific chemicals.

Best, says researcher/chemist Vadoud Niri, of the State University of New York (Oswego), are bromeliads. These air-cleaning powerhouses of the plant world are related to both orchids and decorative mosses, and their bold, often colorful foliage makes them a wonderful addition to a bedroom or bathroom.

Examples of bromeliads include air plants like Tillandsia, which can get up to five feet across, look like a spider plant, and thrive just hanging around (or in pots of soil if you prefer). The flowers range from peach to deepest fuchsia. A single bromeliad can remove about 80 percent of six VOCs commonly found in inside air.

Other Champs

Niri, presenting at the American Chemical Society’s 252nd National Meeting in Philadelphia on August 24, tested at least one each of five species of houseplants: a bromeliad, the Caribbean tree cactus, dracaena, the jade plant, and the spider plant. All were grown together in a container about the size of a car’s gas tank.

Unlike former tests, which usually pitted plants against one type of VOC at a time, Niri tested his champs against the common range of VOCs found inside any room inhabited by humans and their 21st-century goodies.

All did well at sucking up acetone, but none as well as the dracaena. Conversely, the spider plant, not a champ one-on-one, was the fastest at removing a variety of VOCs, but lacked the stamina of a long-distance runner. The bromeliad remained the gold medal winner, of course, but even it couldn’t touch dichloromethane and trichloromethane, found in many paint and varnish strippers, carpet glues, and waterless carpet cleaners.

Niri and associates plan to continue their experiments on various other plants, and will no doubt share their findings with the rest of us. To see a video about Niri’s findings, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdOibycDIA4

Why Plants?

Once odors enter the air, you can’t get rid of them. You can’t vacuum them out. You can’t even get them out with ordinary air filtration devices priced in the $50-200 range, because the level of filtration has to be so microscopic it gets expensive.

The best you and I can hope for is to let VOCs (particulates, remember?) settle to the surface over time, where they accumulate with dust, etc., and can be wiped up. Carefully.


This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Green Tips and DIY, The Air We Breathe and was tagged with ACS, air filtration, air quality, American Chemical Society, bio-based cleaners, botanicals, bromeliad, clean air, dichloromethane, Green Your Home, HEALTH SENSITIVE, outgassing, plant respiration, Plants, trichloromethane, Vadoud Niri, volatile organic compounds

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