We spend up to 90 per cent of our time indoors, sealed tightly into our homes, trying to prevent costly energy loss and escape the chill of winter and the heat of summer. But there’s a big looming cloud over the cozy picture. It’s inside air pollution.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) labels indoor air one of the top five environmental health risks. Pollutants known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs are especially irritating to people with asthma or respiratory sensitivity to chemicals. And these gases are everywhere: they’re given off by new furniture, adhesives used in carpeting and cupboards, paint, drywall, a wide variety of personal-care products and dry cleaning.
But a whiff of good news on the home front: a study conducted by a University of Georgia team has shown that at least five common houseplants cleanse the air of some nasty VOCs.
Dr. Stanley Kays, a professor in the department of horticulture and the lead author of the study, called the findings exciting. “I see a real potential positive health impact if we learn how to utilize plants to create a healthier environment,” he told Allergic Living.
The research team tested 28 common indoor plants for their ability to remove five toxic indoor pollutants: benzene (particularly found in drywall in Georgia), toluene, octane, trichloroethene (TCE) and alpha-pinene.
“The VOCs tested in this study have a potential to seriously compromise the health of exposed individuals,” Kays said.
What floored him was the sheer volume of these compounds in the households. “When we started checking the air quality in some of the houses, it was shocking, unbelievable. We identified 179 VOCs in just two homes. It reiterated that we have a real problem here and most people have no idea about it.”
The Top 5
Of 28 plant species tested, five emerged as the best VOC eliminators.
- Purple Waffle Plant (Hemigraphis alternata) This attractive plant has puckered, slightly curled leaves that show off a red underside. It’s professor Stanley Kays personal favorite, a VOC-eliminating powerhouse.
- English Ivy (Hedera helix) The lush, fast-growing foliage makes for a nice hanging or climbing plant as ivy sucks up the UGA’s quintuplet of VOCs. Do keep out of reach of toddlers and pets, as the leaves are toxic if eaten.
- Variegated Wax Plant (Hoya carnosa) This tropical develops beautiful blooms in the summer, and its exquisite two-tone foliage inhales your household pollutants all year long.
- Asparagus Fern (Asparagus densiflorus) The plant’s abundant greenery scrubs toxins right out of the air. Meantime, the elegant spikes will perk up a room in the dead of winter. Don’t eat the berries, which can irritate the intestines; the plant can be toxic to pets.
- Purple Heart Plant (Tradescantia pallida) A favourite from the spiderwort family, this plant with its elongated, purple leaves out fills out to a full, beautiful hanging pot. Researchers rated it as superior for its ability to remove four of five VOCs – benzene, toluene, TCE and alpha-pinene.
On the Horizon
While this study  is preliminary research, Kays is optimistic about being able to offer plant “prescriptions” in future. “I think we can really increase the health of people by the precise use of plants in interior spaces,” he says. A few pretty plants for much better breathing? Sounds like an idea that will blossom.
First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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