If you have to spend long time day after day in a room with computers, printers and generally a lot of plastic and synthetic furniture, carpets etc. there is nothing better to surround yourself with plants. Plastic is reacting chemically with the air and releasing Volatile Organic Chemicals. Also a host of toxic chemicals in soft furnishings, carpets, paints and computer equipment can all have a detrimental effect on our well-being. The main culprits are paints, carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide from gas cookers, formaldehyde, benzene and other volatile compounds from building materials, fabrics, cleaning products and even toiletries. Constant exposure to these chemicals can bring on symptoms including burning eyes and throats, headaches, fatigue, and sinus and respiratory problems.
First a short list of substances to avoid (if you can):
Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a commercial product found in a wide variety of industrial uses. Over 90 percent of the TCE produced is used in the metal degreasing and dry cleaning industries. In addition, it is used in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes, and adhesives. In 1975 the National Cancer Institute reported that an unusually high incidence of hepatocellular carcinomas was observed in mice given TCE by gastric intubation and now considers this chemical a potent liver carcinogen.
Benzene is a very commonly used solvent and is also present in many common items including gasoline, inks, oils, paints, plastics, and rubber. In addition it is used in the manufacture of detergents, explosives, pharmaceuticals, and dyes.
Benzene has long been known to irritate the skin and eyes. In addition, it has been shown to be mutagenic to bacterial cell culture and has shown embryotoxic activity and carcinogenicity in some tests. Evidence also exists that benzene may be a contributing factor in chromosomal aberrations and leukemia in humans. Repeated skin contact with benzene will cause drying, inflammation, blistering and dermatitis. Chronic exposure to even relatively low levels might cause headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, nervousness, psychological disturbances and diseases of the blood system, including anemia and bone marrow diseases.
Formaldehyde is a ubiquitous chemical found in virtually all indoor environments. Because formaldehyde resins are used in many construction materials it is one of the more common indoor air pollutants. It is used in consumer paper products including grocery bags, waxed papers, facial tissues and paper towels. Many common household cleaning agents contain formaldehyde. UF resins are used as stiffeners, wrinkle resisters, water repellents, fire retardants and adhesive binders in floor coverings, carpet backings and permanent-press clothes. Other sources of formaldehyde include heating and cooking fuels like natural gas, kerosene, and cigarette smoke. At concentrations above 0.1 ppm in air formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes, resulting in watery eyes. Formaldehyde inhaled at this concentration may cause headaches, a burning sensation in the throat, and difficulty breathing, and can trigger or aggravate asthma symptoms. Chronic exposure at higher levels, starting at around 1.9 ppm, has been shown to result in significant damage to pulmonary function, resulting in reduced maximum mid-expiratory flow and forced vital capacity. There is also research that supports the theory that formaldehyde exposure contributes to reproductive problems in women.
Now let me present some of plants worth having in your home and/or office, the ones which are not only a joy to look at but also can improve the quality of air around you, absorbing many noxious substances (all images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons).
Ivy (Hedera Helix) – Ivy is a miracle worker, easily the most effective indoor plant in absorbing formaldehyde. One ivy plant per square meter can absorb 1.49 grams of that pollutant. It also very effective in absorbing other harmful substances like benzene and it doesn’t need a lot of space. Ivy prefers to be kept on the slightly cool side; it grows best where it gets four or more hours a day of direct sunlight, but it will grow fairly well in bright indirect light as well. If you don’t want it creeping around your whole room (or you can’t allow it in the office) pinch off stem tips – it will induce bushiness.
Adiantum Aethiopicum and other varieties (Maidenhair fern) – It is suitable for terrariums and hanging baskets and is fairly easy to grow. What’s more that beauty can absorb 20 micrograms of formaldehyde per hour and it is considered one of the most effective natural cleaners. If you work regularly with paint or have to tolerate smokers around you, you should consider Adiantum as your personal air filter. This plant also absorbs Xylene and Toluene released by monitors and printers. Adiantum doesn’t like cold drafts; also do not expose it to any direct sunlight or even especially bright light. Water freely in summer and keep moist in winter. I think it is the best to place the pot in a tray of pebbles to keep humidity elevated. Like the spider plant it likes to be sprayed frequently.
Aloe vera (plenty of variations) is a succulent plant species perfect for those who often forget about watering. It absorbs formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. When the amount of toxins in the air have exceeded healthy amounts the leaves on the Aloe plant become spotted, signaling for help. One of the reasons it’s such a good air purifying plant is that, unlike most plants, it actually releases oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide at night. For this reason, it is recommendable to keep an aloe vera plant in every bedroom. Provide your aloe vera plant with shade to full sun and the best soil to use is well-draining kind, preferably a cactus or succulent mix. Aloe doesn’t like overwatering so be careful – before you pour some water put your finger down into the potting soil about 2 to 3 inches. Water the plant only if the soil is dry.
Chlorophytum comosum ( spider plant) is one of my personal favourites. That graceful, undemanding plant, very easy to grow and love, can be called a living green air filter. It should be watered daily and it will be grateful for a spray of water in the morning but in return an average pot of Chlorophytum in a 200 square foot room is enough to release oxygen and absorb carcinogens like formaldehyde and styrene. Chlorophytum can perform photosynthesis even under weak light; just give it some quality soil, plenty of water in the summer and a big, nice planting pot – in favourable conditions it grows like crazy.
Spathiphyllum (known as Spath or peace lily) another of my favourites. It looks great; moreover it absorbs bio-effluents released as a byproduct of human breath, as well as benzene and formaldehyde fumes. Grown in a bedroom or kitchen, peace lily can improve the air dramatically as it also helps to increase moisture levels, especially in badly ventilated and stuffy rooms. The plant does not need large amounts of light or water to survive – it’s enough you water it once-twice a week.
Sansevieria Laurentii (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, Snake Plant) it looks gorgeous and makes a huge statement in the office and at home. It has attractive sword-like leaves, often in two shades of green (like those in the pic), that grow somewhat tall, making it excellent for focal interest or screening. This plant is one of the best for filtering out formaldehyde, which is common in cleaning products, toilet paper, tissues and personal care products. Put one in your bathroom — it’ll thrive with fluorescent light and steamy humid conditions while helping filter out air pollutants and being a joy to look at. Do not water it too fequently – it is one of these plants which can be killed by overwatering.
Chrysantheium morifolium (Pot Mum, Potted Mum) One of the best potted plants for filtering chemicals including formaldehyde, benzene and ammonia which comes from household cleaning products. It is often sold as a gift plant because it is so easy to care for. The wide array of colors and flower forms mean there is a shade to suit just about any indoor décor or patio planter color scheme.
Barberton Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
Grown in pots, those colourful beauties are good at breathing in an entire cocktail of chemicals as well as helping to humidify and freshen stuffy rooms. They are perennials so next time you want to give somebody a bouquet of cut flowers maybe think about buying a pot of these instead – they will last longer and they will clean your air. Still they might be pretty demanding: they must have good bright light if you expect repeat blooming, but direct harsh sunlight can quickly damage their leaves. You also have to water it often in warmer months of the year. In these months you want moist, rather than dry or soaking, soil. Take care to avoid splashing the leaves; it’s best to water from the bottom, or around the sides.
That list is of course far from complete. I didn’t mention many other plants like cacti, clivia, bamboos and different dracaenas; their properties, when it comes to filtering out air pollutant, are similar to those above. Before you buy plants for your home or as a gift, it’s always good to check which ones can provide, apart from great appearance, an extra bonus in a form of cleaner air.