Despite our best efforts to get outside, many of us western industrialized folk spend 90+% of our time indoors (especially in the winter!). In that time, we are inhaling all the emissions off-gassed by our furniture, carpet, appliances, cleaning fluids, personal care products, even ourselves (called bio-effluents). These emissions include formaldehyde, methyl alcohol, benzene, ammonia, and acetone.
On top of that, our homes become much drier in the winter. As our nasal membranes dry out from the lack of humidity, they become easy prey for the viruses shopping around for a new home, and become more prone to irritation from allergens and airborne chemicals. And since many of us have weatherized our houses and offices in order to become more energy-efficient, those chemicals may stick around for a while. In the more extreme cases, this can result in "Sick Building Syndrome," a constellation of associated symptoms like headache, nausea, fatigue, and allergies.
Fortunately, NASA scientist Dr. B.C. Wolverton has now published "How to Grow Fresh Air," a guide to 50 houseplants that can help make your home environment cleaner and more comfortable. In the book, Dr. Wolverton reports research that specifically shows which houseplants cleanse which chemicals from the air. Each plant is rated based on four factors: ability to clean the air, ease of maintenance, resistance to insects, and transpiration rate (ability to humidify the air). Plants range from palms, to dracaenas, to philodendrons and even flowering indoor plants.
I knew that houseplants cleaned the air, but I didn't remember that they humidify the air as well. And, I discovered something new - houseplants actually suppress molds, bacterias and microbes in the home environment. Research has shown that plant-filled rooms have 50-60% fewer molds and bacteria colonies than rooms which are empty of plants.
Personally, I love houseplants, and not just because they clean my air. I love how they bring life to a house full of dead objects and stale air, love how their organic shapes bring a beautiful untidiness to my decorations. I've also read research on healing that demonstrates that people who have views of the outdoors can recover faster - I imagine this might apply to views of houseplants as well. And from a practical perspective, plants are the perfect way to hide plugs, wires, and empty corners.
After reading this book, I went to the store and bought seven houseplants. Apparently, you should locate several inside or near your personal "breathing zone" - which is the 6-8 cubic feet around where you spend most of your time. For me, that means: near my head in the bedroom; near the computer, and in the kitchen (to clean out cooking smells). And offices are perfect spots for houseplants. When my husband moved into his new office (a building located INSIDE a warehouse), which was filled to the gills with new carpet and freshly painted chemicals, and where no views of the outdoors were possible, I bought him four houseplants. I think they help keep him sane!
In a world where it seems like we can't avoid chemicals even if we try, since they are in everything.... at least we have a way to clean them out of our air.