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Plant Life

When filling your home with growing greenery, are you creating a healthful haven or brewing a toxic stew?

Home sweet home. It’s warm, welcoming, and cozy, especially on a cold-weather day, when we may not feel like venturing outside. Indoors, we have everything we need: a good book, our fuzzy slippers, a mug of hot cocoa, and a diffuser permeating the air with a lovely essential-oil scent.

Turns out, we may also have a number of harmful and even carcinogenic toxins and pollutants permeating the air, possibly including formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene, and ammonia, to name a few—chemicals found in common household items, such as our furniture, rugs, paper towels, cleaning supplies, and paint. And along with these chemicals come adverse health effects, such as dizziness, headache, sore throat, confusion, and nausea as well as, in some cases, potential damage to our liver, heart, and kidneys.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we who consider ourselves “average” Americans spend 93% of our lives indoors—87% indoors and 6% in autos. And in the colder Colorado months, of course, we’re less likely to open windows and doors, trapping chemicals inside with us.

So what can we do to improve our indoor air quality? One simple way is to green up our living and work spaces with plants—regular, easy-to-care-for houseplants, backed up by NASA studies, no less.

Jen Pelto, the tropical foliage manager with Phelan Gardens and a lover of all things tropical, says, “As NASA discovered, plants have the amazing ability to absorb pollution for a cleaner environment. Technically, all plants could be considered air cleaners since they absorb carbon dioxide. However, those key studies from NASA and additionally from Wolverton [B. C. “Bill” Wolverton, an environmental scientist] found that some plants could also remove VOCs [volatile organic compounds] from some of those common household items. In particular, they found that certain plants are effective at filtering indoor air pollutants, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and xylene, among others.”

Wolverton was an environmental scientist funded by NASA to research the environment’s natural abilities to clean itself. As described in a NASA Spinoff article, “In 1973, NASA scientists identified 107 VOCs in the air inside the Skylab space station. Synthetic materials, like those used to construct Skylab, give off low levels of chemicals. This effect, known as off-gassing, spreads the VOCs… When those chemicals are trapped without circulation, as was the case with the Skylab, the inhabitants may become ill, as the air they breathe is not given the natural scrubbing by Earth’s complex ecosystem.”

In a 1989 NASA report, Wolverton said, “If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.”

Studies have shown that, in addition to cleaning the air we breathe, houseplants reduce stress levels and improve concentration and productivity by up to 15%. “While plants are not the whole answer,” says Pelto, “they can play a big part in a healthier indoor environment. And winter can sometimes be a harder time for people. Plants offer the benefit of bringing life to indoor spaces and connecting us with nature. For many people, this can help improve mood.”

Pelto, who recently taught a class at Phelan Gardens on clean-air plants adds, “Many common houseplants, such as certain dracaenas, ferns, rubber plants, lady palms, and pothos are some of the top performers. There are 20+ types of plants listed as positive air cleaners that we offer on a regular basis.”

Setting Up a Greener Indoor Space

For optimal filtration in enclosed environments, says Pelto, studies suggest one 10-inch plant for every 100 square feet. “However, plants do take care and need certain things, such as proper lighting and watering. So a good strategy might be to place plants in the areas where people spend most of their time, such as main living spaces and bedrooms. Most plants will do best in bright, indirect light. There are a select few that can range to the extremes of lower light or bright, direct sunlight.”

It is important to note that some indoor plants, like dracaena, can be toxic to pets, so be sure to check with your greenhouse pro when selecting your plants. Pelto says, “People have the best results when they follow a few simple steps: Always pot plants in proper soil in a pot that has holes in the bottom. That way, water can’t build up in your pot. Water when lightly dry (less in winter) and always make sure to drain away excess moisture from the catch tray so that plants don’t drown.”

And, as Wolverton discovered, the more air that is allowed to circulate through the roots of the plants, the more effective the plants are at cleaning polluted air.