Household plants do more than adorn our homes—as living, breathing beings themselves, they also inject more life force into our space.
And while faux plants can give the illusion of life, there is no substitute for the real thing (and green thumbs can be learned over time).
As we all learned in school, living plants inhale the carbon dioxide we exhale, and they convert it back into breathable oxygen (mostly during daytime, doing the opposite at night). In so doing, they cleanse the air in our homes making it purer for us to breathe.
But some plants can provide the air in our homes with an even deeper cleanse, removing harmful toxins from our environment. This is important for all of us to be mindful of, but particularly so if we share our homes with children, elderly folks, or anyone with a compromised immune system.
According to the World Health Organisation, there are three areas of indoor air pollution that we should be most concerned about:
Biological indoor air pollutants (dampness and mold)
Chemical pollutants (Three of the most common indoor pollutants are formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene.)
Pollutants from indoor combustion of fuels
Formaldehyde is a common indoor pollutant found in plywood, particle board, paint, adhesives, varnishes, wallpaper, and the smoke from fires. It can aggravate asthma symptoms and is classified by the EPA as a probable human carcinogen.
Benzine is also a human carcinogen present in many of the same products listed above for formaldehyde. It’s also found in flooring such as vinyl and nylon carpets.
Trichlorethylene is carcinogenic to animals, and there is evidence that it may also be linked to kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and cardiac diseases in humans. It is found in dyes, soaps, disinfectants, and aerosols.
Unless our homes are newly built or newly renovated with sound ecological products, most of us are probably living with these pollutants in the air we’re breathing. So, in addition to climate change and other ecological concerns, our personal health is another powerful reason why we need to be increasingly mindful of the eco-credentials of everything we bring in to our homes—from our furniture, flooring, and paint to our clothing, personal care products, and food.
With conscious consumerism, we can reduce our exposure to air pollutants.
And the great news is that beautiful, giving plants can also help detoxify our air of these chemical pollutants, as well as counter-acting the increased carbon dioxide from the burning of fuels, and in some cases, even contain the presence of mold.
Of course, the ultimate solution is to avoid exposure to pollutants altogether—but until that is 100 percent possible, it’s good to know we can take remedial steps. The following is a selection of plants that can help us to get started with that:
Aloe Vera is known for its medicinal qualities, particularly for the skin. However, it also filters benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxins from the air. On top of all this, the aloe is also suitable for the bedroom, producing oxygen at night time. Keep in a sunny spot and water regularly during spring and summer, allowing the soil to dry out completely between watering. In winter, water more sparingly, or the roots may rot. (This plant is toxic to cats and dogs, so do keep it out of their reach.)
Areca Palm filters formaldehyde with the added bonus of being a natural humidifier, making it a good option for people with respiratory problems, or for those living in dry climates. It can grow quite tall, so if space is an issue, curb its growth by not potting up to a larger container. Keep in a bright spot, and water regularly during summer and sparingly during winter.
Bamboo Palm is a great choice for filtering formaldehyde, benzene, trichlorethylene, ammonia, and carbon monoxide. Keep in a reasonably bright spot, avoiding both direct sunlight and too much shade. It likes moist (but not soaked) soil—water when the top third of the soil has become dry.
Boston Fern is one of the best plants for absorption of formaldehyde; this plant is also a natural humidifier. The soil needs to be kept moist (but not soaked) at all times, and it likes indirect light and to be kept away from heat.
Peace Lily absorbs formaldehyde, benzene, trichlorethylene, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and other toxins. It also absorbs microscopic mold spores making it a great choice for kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms. It’s known for its ability to survive in darker spaces, but does better in a relatively bright spot, without direct sunlight. Water weekly to keep the soil moist and keep out of reach of curious cats—it has the kind of leaves they like to chew on, but it’s toxic to cats and dogs.
Snake Plant, also known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, is another great plant to keep in the bedroom, as it converts carbon dioxide to oxygen at night, improving the air quality in our room as we sleep. On top of that, it also filters benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, and ammonia. Place in direct sunlight, and water sparingly (especially during winter), allowing the soil to dry out completely between waterings. And keep out of pets’ reach.
Spider Plant is a quick-growing plant that generously spawns lots of baby plants you can gift to friends or pot up for additional air purifying benefits. It filters mold spores, benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and other toxins. It’s also low maintenance, requiring watering about once a fortnight, allowing the soil to dry out completely in between waterings.
These are just a few of our plant options. Check the NASA Clean Air Study for a more comprehensive list of plants that add air detoxification, as well as beauty, to our homes.
An important caveat to make here is not to expect magic results overnight. Our homes don’t exactly replicate scientific laboratories, and a single plant is unlikely to thoroughly purify our home’s air, given all the sources of pollution we have to deal with.
Start with one or two of your favorites, and add to your collection as you develop a greener thumb, aiming to end up with at least one in each room and several plants in your larger spaces.
Keep in mind that natural ventilation is also important, so open the windows regularly!
Here’s to cleaner, greener, and more vital living spaces for all of us.