Using Houseplants to Reduce Toxins and Grow Fresh Air

Clean air.

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

Enter Houseplants!

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?

36 Comments

  1. Pam

    I love plants! I have them all over the house. I have a pothos on top of my armoire in the living room, and another one in the corner growing up a topiary. I have a pot with various plants in it in the living room/dining room area. And then, I have various succulents scattered around the rest of the rooms. I became aware of their ability to clean air after I found a fondness for them. Mine aren’t on the the list. I had tried to grow palms, but killed them almost immediately. :0( They may not be at the top of their ranks for cleaning the air – but they certainly can’t hurt it! Plus, they bring some life to a home!

    Enjoyed your post!
    Pam
    .-= Pam’s last blog: The Apron – To Wear or Not to Wear? That is the question. =-.

  2. Erin

    Excellent topic but incomplete without discussions of toxicity to children/pets/compromised individuals. I will be doing this in my home, after further research.

    • Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

      I absolutely agree that it would be important to talk more about the toxicity of these chemicals and how they affect people. Unfortunately the scope of this post simply couldn’t contain that much information, but it’s a good point to bring up and certainly one that should be looked into further.

      For anyone looking for more information on toxins and their effects, one particular website that has excellent articles is Environmental Working Group (EWG): http://www.ewg.org/.
      .-= Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home’s last blog: Safe & All Natural Beauty Products You Can Make at Home =-.

      • Jennifer in VA

        I don’t think she was talking about the toxicity of the chemicals to kids/pets but the toxicity/safety of the PLANTS for kids/pets. 🙂

  3. Kara

    I’ve been meaning do do this. My biggest complication now would be getting my plants enough sun…

      • Kara

        I’ll have to check it out at the library then. Thanks. 🙂

  4. Nikki Moore

    I appreciate that you included some specific types of plants! I have a black thumb and have always been terrified of bringing home indoor plants only to have them die within a matter of days or weeks. We live in a rented apartment and have next to no control over what’s in it (other than our own stuff of course!). So maybe some plants, if they are pretty hardy, would be a good idea.

    Thanks for the info. Looks like a really good book too.
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: why we don’t eat much meat =-.

  5. Kika

    I am a plant killer! Yes, I try to have plants in my home – only because I know they are good for air qualilty but they always die. My last survivor is a Dracaena but it is not doing so well. I think I need to repot it. Is it possible to cut back houseplants so that they do not need repotting – I don’t necessarily want huge plants?!

    • Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home

      I’m not sure about cutting them back to keep from repotting… I would imagine so, but I am actually not a very good houseplant gardener. I’m much better with vegetables. My houseplants can tend to be neglected, which is why I’ve been looking into this topic, to inspire myself to have more plants and be more motivated to tend to them well!

      Does anyone else know about ways to keep plants on the smaller side?
      .-= Stephanie @ Keeper of the Home’s last blog: Safe & All Natural Beauty Products You Can Make at Home =-.

  6. Eren

    We have several house plants inside, more in the winter when some of our outside plants come in. Last year I let each of the boys pick an indoor plant for their rooms. They are responsible for watering it and talking to it. Great topic!!!
    .-= Eren’s last blog: How To: Outdoor Movie Night =-.

  7. Todd

    Excellent post. I have been meaning to buy a few house plants buy have not gotten myself to do it. Thanks for the recommendation on this book: How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office. I have added it to my book list and hope to purchase it soon.

    This post makes me want to buy a house plant as soon as possible. It is amazing what nature can do for us in simple forms 🙂
    .-= Todd’s last blog: Sleep and Acne: 3 Top Tips for Adequate Sleep & Acne Free Skin =-.

  8. minneosta:madre | Sarah Jane

    Thanks! I’ve been wanting to get houseplants, but know nothing. Just requested the book from the libary!
    .-= minneosta:madre | Sarah Jane’s last blog: sitting sister =-.

  9. Erin

    LOVE this post. We moved into a new home and I’ve made it my goal to put a peace lily in every room. Peace Lilies seem to be the only thing I can keep alive in Arizona! My family needs great indoor air quality due to allergies. Thanks for the post and the great book reference.
    .-= Erin’s last blog: Dealing with Death =-.

  10. Katie

    This is the information I have been looking for! We are on a quest to clean our indoor air; we’ve never really had any houseplants inside but always love the look of them in other people’s homes. We will definitely refer back to this post in a few weeks when we’re ready to buy our plants – and maybe find a copy of that book, too! Thanks, Stephanie!

  11. Jen

    Thanks – interesting post – I will try and check the book out of the library. I too have a hard time keeping plants alive, but I may try and find one or two and give it a shot!

  12. Sherry

    I need to get some more houseplants. I just need to make sure to get ones that don’t require a lot of care as I don’t have a super green thumb. LOL!
    .-= Sherry’s last blog: What do I love this week? Free Gift Cards! =-.

  13. Kate

    How I would love to have an army of indoor houseplants to purify the air I breath! I am particularly in need of fresh air because I suffer from a chronic disease. Alas, my mom has forbidden indoor houseplants as they mean bugs in the house. I noticed on your list a few which are insect-repellant. Perhaps these would be permissible. Thank you for sharing this!
    Blessings,
    Kate

  14. Felicia

    Thank you so much for this post but like Erin mentioned above most house plants that I know of are toxic and because of that I do not have any because of my small children. If anyone knows of any non toxic plants that are green and leafy I would love to know about them!
    .-= Felicia’s last blog: Shabby Apple {Review} =-.

  15. Anitra

    I would love to have houseplants, but any time we have ANY fresh greenery in the house, my cats chew it to pieces. 🙁 I’ve tried hanging plants or putting them where the cats can’t reach them, but then they either don’t get enough sunlight, or they are “out of sight, out of mind” and I forget to water them.

  16. Heather H.

    We added 10 houseplants last summer and a small air purifier in the bedroom and living room. My son’s indoor allergies have disappeared!

  17. date palm@date palm

    Date palms are big. I can’t say I have ever seen dwarft date palms. They grow slowly, but very tall.

  18. Stephen Brown

    It just goes to show that having house plants around the place can help to make the air purer. I can remember when I was reasponsible for buying plants for our office to help combat any impurities given off by thecomputers, printers, photocopiers and other items of technology in use, it was great I was given a £200 budget and told to spend it on plants, what a great day at work that was visting the local garden centre

  19. pat @ curtain rod

    Hi! I’m not a green thumb myself but definitely I really adore plants because not that only they relaxes me after a days work but also I know that they clean the air that I breathe. I don’t exactly know the names of the small plants in almost all areas of my house but I’m sure they are a big help in sustaining good health for me and my family. I have learned a lot from your post.

  20. how to remove blood stains

    I really love the plants i have some inside of my house, i am so bad with the names of the plants but i give new names and talk with them every day.

  21. Felix C. Obrien

    Fresh air is truly so refreshing and is also good for our health. Although, we can’t really assure that we can get it everyday. I am actually an allergy victim and I am very sensitive to dust and this helped me a lot http://www.bestairpurifiersforallergies.org
    This actually helped my breathing and to have that fresh air that I am longing for everyday. Check it out and you will see. Thanks!

  22. john davis

    im trying to figure out what plants can be in a home of my brother with lung problems he has emphazema and copd

  23. Paula23Navarro

    I took my first mortgage loans when I was 32 and that supported me very much. However, I need the car loan over again.

  24. Reproduction Furniture

    Some useful info here, I’ve also got a history of “house plant murdering” so the info about how sturdy they are is particularly useful.

  25. Vaughnde Edwards

    I don’t have any plants currently in my home. I have a black thumb so to speak but do also want to grow some herbs. I have MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity) so am well aware of some of the off-gassing things you explained and was surprised at others. I live in an early 60’s plaster and lath house less than 700 sq. foot. My 2 yr old grandson constantly comes to stay with me and at the moment house is flea-ridden thanks to his mother….in 2012 I will have to have an exterminator come in and spray. Jamie and I will have to stay at my folks house for a couple of days at least until the poisons sort of dissipate to the point I can tolerate being in the house without headaches. What house plant would you recommend that will get rid of the toxins quickly and already be potted that I can find a space for and help with my chemical reactions?

  26. charles

    i only have one plant but it is growing greatly, my concern is i’m about to move from the north east to the south east and i was thinking of taking my lovely plant in my car. cane you advise how to trans port her without damaging her.

  27. charmingdate

    Nice to be here and see your post!

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