NASA, in association with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America, did a great research study in 1989 identifying plants that effectively clean the air. They found that plants could not only clean the air of carbon dioxide, they could also removed large amounts of benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene. Xylene and toluene were also studied. These chemicals often produce “sick building syndrome” associated with many new, energy-efficient buildings.
Here is a look at the 3 main chemicals that plants can remove from your air. This isn’t just an issue of your house smelling fresher. It’s a issue of long-term health effects!
Effects of Exposure According the EPA
Acute Exposure: The major toxic effects caused by acute formaldehyde exposure via inhalation are eye, nose, and throat irritation and effects on the nasal cavity. Other effects seen from exposure to high levels of formaldehyde in humans are coughing, wheezing, chest pains, and bronchitis.
Chronic exposure to formaldehyde by inhalation in humans has been associated with respiratory symptoms and eye, nose, and throat irritation.
Cancer risk Occupational studies have noted statistically significant associations between exposure to formaldehyde and increased incidence of lung and nasopharyngeal cancer. This evidence is considered to be “limited,” rather than “sufficient,” due to possible exposure to other agents that may have contributed to the excess cancers.
Is it in Your Home?
Probably. While this is usually thought of as a preservative used in labs and mortuaries, formaldehyde is also found in many other products such as particle board, glues, household products fabrics, paper product coatings, fiberboard and plywood. You can do your best not to buy products that have formaldehyde in them, but chances are that your home is made out of materials that release formaldehyde. Your sub-floors are likely pressed board and pressed wood products could be used in your cabinets, drawer fronts and furniture. If your home was built in the 1970’s formaldehyde foam insulation was commonly used in the walls.
Effects of Exposure according to WHO
Acute exposure symptoms include “headache, dizziness, drowsiness, confusion, tremors and loss of consciousness.”
“Chronic exposure to benzene can reduce the production of both red and white blood cells from bone marrow in humans, resulting in aplastic anaemia.”
Cancer risk “Benzene is a well-established cause of cancer in humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified benzene as carcinogenic to humans. Benzene causes acute myeloid leukaemia (acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia), and there is limited evidence that benzene may also cause acute and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma.”
Is it in Your Home?
Yes. “Benzene has been detected at high levels in indoor air. Although some of this exposure might be from building materials (paints, adhesives, etc.), most is from cigarette smoke in both homes and public spaces. Levels of benzene are higher in homes with attached garages than in those with detached garages. Levels are increased in homes close to petrol filling stations. Benzene may be released to indoor air from unflued oil heating and from the use of benzene containing consumer products in residences. People spending more time indoors, such as children, are likely to have higher exposure to benzene.” –WHO
“It is used as a solvent to remove grease from metal during the manufacture of variety of products, including building/furniture materials, fixtures, fabricated metal, and electric/electronic equipment.” According to NY. GOV There isn’t good research about it’s toxicity at lower levels, such as in a household environment, so I hesitate to list it here. Indoor air generally has low levels of this chemical unlike formaldehyde and benzene.
HOW MANY PLANTS DO I NEED?
The study suggested one plant per 100 sq feet of home or office space. Since I have a problem passing a plant section in a store without buying one, having enough plants to clean the air is not a problem for me!
NASA has a great list of plants, but here are my favorites for their superior ability to clean the air while being attractive and easy to care for (hard to kill)! Note that some of them are toxic to dogs, cats and children if eaten, so I choose to keep these on high shelves to keep us safe. I’ll note these plants with an asterisk.
If you struggles with keeping houseplants, this one is for you. It thrives with very little attention. It likes low to medium light, so it is perfect for a corner (on a table if you have kids and pets). Water it once it is dried out making sure to water the soil and not the leaf rosette or it will rot. The only thing this plant hates is being over-watered. Eliminates formaldehyde benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene.
We recently moved and my plants were not as cared for as they were used to since I was busy and distracted. My plants also had to get used to new light conditions and different temperatures since we were just entering the summer months in a non-airconditioned house (which is pretty common in my area since our summer nights are cool). My peace lily handled it like a champ! She’s been blooming for 5 months now non-stop. All I do is water her weekly. Eliminates benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene and ammonia.
Orchids have a reputation for being hard to grow and easy to kill. Here are 2 things I’ve learned. They need lots of light. Put them in a window with bright, indirect light and they are super happy. In the middle of the room, not so much. Also, don’t over-water them! I take mine out of their ceramic pot and water them in the little plastic pot that they come in letting all the water run off. When I put them back in the pot, I make sure there is no standing water. I only water them every 1.5 weeks or when they are totally dry and they flower for months! Eliminates xylene and toluene.
This is one of my all-time favorites! The mother plant produces little shoots (babies) that you can harvest and grow in little jars of water. So cute! Just cut off the shoot stem, plop them in some water and watch them grow! This is a great project to do with little kids since this plant is non-toxic. Spider plants need consistent watering or their leaves will brown at the tips. Too much water and the leaves will yellow and fall off. Also, if they are in a window that is too bright their leaves will become an unattractive light green/yellow. The nice thing about this plant is that it really communicates with you about what it needs! If you pay attention to it, it will tell you what to do! Eliminates formaldehyde, xylene and toluene.
I have one of these in a pot with a red-edged dracaena in my laundry room. It gets super hot in there in the summer afternoons and the poor thing doesn’t get as much water as it should, but it keeps on trucking! No leaves falling off or anything! This plant is another one that tells you what it wants. Droopy, wilted leaves means it needs water. Leaves growing far apart with spindly vines means it needs more light. Eliminates formaldehyde.
I love this plant for the modern look of it’s deep green glossy leaves. It loves low light, so it makes a great office plant or space-filler in the middle of a room. Plus, it grows long lasting heart-shaped red or white flowers. I just snip off the flowers when they brown and mine always surprises me with a new one shortly! Eliminates formaldehyde and ammonia.
RED EDGED DRACAENA*
These beautiful red-edged plants give a pop of color to a room. They are slow growing but can reach 15 feet if you give them long enough! I’ve had many of these over the years. Sometimes the bottom leaves brown and fall off when I forget to water it enough, but then it just has a nice palm tree look! They are super hardy and tough to actually kill! Eliminates formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene, and toluene.
This is a fast-growing vine that will quickly cascade over a pot or basket. It loves bright, indirect light. These are fun because they are another plant that you can take cuttings of and grow in water to get a new plant! Simply cut off a shoot or two and put them in a jar with water. Watch them grow roots! You can either leave them there and change the water occasionally or plant them into soil once they’ve established. Again, another super hardy plant that loves to grow no matter what you do to it. Eliminates formaldehyde, benzene and xylene.
*Toxic if eaten for pets and kids
What plants do you grow to clean your air? Share your comment below!