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May 3, 2012

Plants that Clean the Air

by Claudia Harmon Worthen, EcoPlanners LLC

Traditional and native cultures used the healing power of plants and trees such as bay, oak, fir and juniper for all sorts of medicinal purposes, including dental care. Twigs from certain trees contain oils which stimulate blood circulation and tannins that tighten and cleanse gum tissue—they can even infuse Vitamin C. Here is something else plants can do – cleanse the air in your home from harmful chemicals.

(Pictured: Peace Lily)

Researchers at NASA have studied various methods of cleansing the atmosphere for human-inhabited space stations. Scientists confirmed that many common houseplants and blooming potted plants help fight indoor pollution. They are able to scrub significant amounts of harmful gases out of the air, through the everyday processes of photosynthesis. Some pollutants are absorbed and rendered harmless in the soil.

We produce or introduce toxins into our homes every day—carbon dioxide from exhalation to carbon monoxide from gas-burning appliances. Our lives are filled with petroleum-based materials that emit gas, either when new or decomposing. A few of the culprits include: plastics, carpets, vinyl flooring, perfumes, deodorants, cleaning products, fingernail polishes and even paper towels.

Houseplants that work best to clean indoor air are those adapted to tropical climates with shaded canopies. They are better at capturing light, making them more efficient in photosynthesis. This means they have greater ability to absorb gasses, including the harmful ones.

1) Golden Pothos removes formaldehyde along with most other indoor chemicals.  As an added benefit for those with brown thumbs, it’s very easy to keep alive. However, there is one slight drawback—it’s poisonous.  To avoid excessive drooling and possible deathly consequences, don’t eat the stuff.

2) Peace Lily works best to mitigate the ill effects of all three of the most common chemicals in the home—trichloroethylene, benzene and formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is found naturally in most woods, but more toxic levels are often added to a variety of products, such as air fresheners, shampoo, bubble bath and cosmetics as a preservative.

3) English Ivy is another easy care plant that removes formaldehyde, benzene (common in pesticides), xylene and toluene found in nail polish, paints, solvents, and adhesives, as well as trichloroethylene, found in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives.

4) Chrysanthemum and Philodendron (poisonous) are good for a variety of toxins:  ammonia butane (as in gasoline), arsenic (used to kill rodents) lead (can prohibit growth of your tissues), benzene and paint thinner, which contains: acetone, methanol, naphthalene (air fresheners), turpentine and xylene.

Additional air cleaners include: weeping fig, Chinese evergreen, spider plant, bamboo palm, snake plant, mother-in-law’s tongue and several varieties of dracaena.

For the best results, place 15-18 plants, in pots no smaller than 4″-6″, throughout a typical 1,800 square foot home.  That translates to about one every 100 square feet.

Living naturally is better for your health and longevity.  Next month we will talk about natural and cheap Eco-Cleaning materials.


Claudia Harmon Worthen is the principal designer at EcoPlanners LLC, a network of sustainability experts in building and interior design on the Central Coast of California. You can reach her by email at [email protected]

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