Not only vital to our health, but something that we don’t tend to think about. It’s easy to forget about the quality of the air that we take in, just as easy as it is to forget that we are effortlessly breathing in and out, in and out, every single moment.
Recent years have seen a trend towards more energy efficient and well-insulated homes and buildings. Good for decreasing energy waste. Bad for trapping toxic gases and fumes in the interiors of the places where we spend the bulk of our time.
Ever heard of Sick Building Syndrome? Common complaints include allergies, asthma, eye/nose/throat irritation, fatigue, headaches, nervous-system disorders, respiratory and sinus congestion.
The culprit? Hundreds of volatile organic chemicals, as well as dangerous bacterias and molds, that become trapped in modern buildings and impact the quality of the air that we breathe.
Indoor air pollution is increasingly becoming a health threat. Incredibly toxic and dangerous chemicals off-gas from everyday items in our households- furniture, carpets, appliances, cleaning supplies, even our clothing. The Environmental Protection Agency has declared that indoor air pollution is among the 5 greatest health threats at present.
Many of us work so hard to reduce the amount of chemicals that enter our home by using more natural products, but it just isn’t possible to avoid them entirely. Over the past couple of years, I have been both surprised and delighted to learn that there is a solution, so simple and organic that we’ll wonder why we didn’t think of it before!
Photo by myboysboy
Not only are houseplants a beautiful, natural addition to any home, but they serve a double function.
Houseplants are able to purify and revitalize the air, by removing chemical vapors and outputting clean air full of life-sustaining oxygen.
“In its simplest form, the earth can be viewed as a living organism. Rainforests act as the earth’s lungs, producing oxygen and removing carbon dioxide- the opposite process to human and animal lungs. Wetlands function as the earth’s kidneys. Aquatic plants filter nutrients and environmental toxins from the water as it flows back into streams, rivers and oceans in much the same way as kidneys filter impurities from our blood.”1
Now, as much as I adore studying nutrition, health and organic gardening, I will confess when it comes to understanding science, I am not the brightest beaker in the lab. I leave the grand experiments and in-depth explanations to fellow contributing author, Katie.
That said, my basic understanding of how plants are able to do this is that they absorb the airborne toxins through their leaves, and then deliver them down to the microbes living in the rhizosphere (the area of soil near plant roots which is filled with biological activity). Once the toxins are in the rhizosphere, the microbes that resides there are able to break down the toxin. Astoundingly, this does not harm or poison the plant in any way.
Photo by mel829
What Toxins Are in the Air and Where Do They Come From?
Most of the chemicals in our homes are the emissions from modern building materials, and also the materials that are used to make most of the furnishings and appliances that we use.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that these materials are no longer natural and organic, but are almost entirely synthetic, held together with various glues and resins, then sprayed, painted or coated with further chemicals. Once in your home, these items “off-gas”, which means that they release chemical fumes from the manufacturing process straight into the air.
Here are a few of the most common chemical emissions and their most common sources:
• Formaldehyde: Carpets, caulking, ceiling tiles, draperies, fabrics, facial tissues, grocery bags, floor coverings, gas stoves, grocery bags, paints, paper towels, permanent press clothing, upholstery.
• Xylene/toluene: Adhesives, computer VDU screens, printers, photocopies, floor coverings, particleboard, stains and varnishes, wall coverings.
• Benzene: Adhesives, ceiling tiles, printers, floor coverings, paints, particleboard, tobacco smoke, stains and varnishes, wall coverings.
• Chloroform: Chlorinated tap water.
• Ammonia: Cleaning products, printers, photocopiers.
• Alcohols: Carpeting, cosmetics, floor coverings, paints, particleboard, stains and varnishes.
• Acetone: Cosmetics, nail polish remover, office correction fluid, pre-printed paper forms.
One simple way to avoid as many of these chemicals as possible is to allow a chance for any new furnishings or building materials to sit outside or in a well-ventilated area before bringing them into their final resting place in your home. The first days and weeks are the time when the greatest deluge of chemicals are released, although lower levels do continue to be released over time.
Naturally, the more that we can begin to purchase products that are made in non-toxic and sustainable ways, using organic and non-volatile materials and substances, the better. Whether it’s mattresses and bedding, carpet and flooring, draperies, clothing, cosmetics and beauty supplies or even children’s toys, there are continually new and improved options out on the market. Pricier, yes, but worthwhile.
Photo by manga_mom
How to Choose the Right Houseplants
Not all plants are created equal. Although all plants offer some level of detoxification, and at the very least reduce carbon dioxide and provide fresh oxygen, there are some that have been shown to be superior over others in this area.
Taken from the book, How to Grow Fresh Air, here is a list of houseplants that have been rated from 1 to 10 according to their ability to remove chemical vapors, their ease of growth and maintenance, resistance to insect infestation, as well as their transpiration rate (a better transpiration rate aids the plant in working more quickly and effectively).
10 Plants to Consider Adding to Your Home
• Areca Palm: 8.5
Strong in all areas, but with a very high transpiration rate. Considered one of the most “eco-friendly” houseplants.
• Lady Palm: 8.5
Particularly easy to care for and insect resistant, and common to find in garden nurseries.
• Bamboo Palm: 8.4
Extremely high ratings for removal of chemicals and transpiration rates. Beautiful and tropical looking.
• Rubber Plant: 8.0
Easy to maintain, and very effective at removing all chemicals, but formaldehyde in particular.
• Dracaena “Janet Craig”: 7.8
Can tolerate neglect (my kind of plant!) and dimly lit environments. Can grow quite large, but there is a “compacta” smaller variety.
• English Ivy: 7.8
A vigorous climber, but could be grown as a topiary. Adapt well to most environments, but do not do well in very warm temperatures.
• Dwarf Date Palm: 7.8
A unique looking palm, particulary effectively at removing xylene among other pollutants. Does well in low light levels.
• Ficus Alii: 7.7
There are 3 types- standard tree, bush, and braids (entwined trunks). All are easy to grow and resistant to insects.
• Boston Fern: 7.5
A great smaller plant to put on a pedestal, mantel or desk. It does need frequent watering, but is excellent at removing vapors.
• Peace Lily: 7.5
A good, all-around plant. It is one of the few that will reliably bloom indoors, with tall white flowers.
I am greatly indebted to the book How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office for its explanations, charts and diagrams that helped me to understand this concept, and for its extensive list of houseplants, along with photos and information on their origin, care and use. I would highly recommend this as an invaluable resource for every home.
1. How to Grow Fresh Air, Dr. B.C. Wolverton, pg. 15.
Do you have many houseplants in your home? Were you aware of their ability to purify air, or do you have them for aesthetic purposes only?