Sunday, June 2, 2013

Using Houseplants to Purify the Air

Today is Sunday, June 2, 2013. 

When I saw this image of six air-purifying houseplants, I recalled that there were a few others, as well, not pictured.  Once I started researching the topic, it occurred to me that I didn't really know which things produced which toxic substances in the air, so I researched that, too.  

Last summer, I bought a wardrobe chest from Home Depot that was made of particle board.  It was one of those things you have to put together yourself, and fortunately my dad agreed to do that part for me.  After the wardrobe chest was up, I realized that it stunk, so I decided to keep the doors open for a while to air it out.  Then I started to have huge headaches, especially at night, because the wardrobe chest was right next to the bed.  On doing some research on the web, I realized that the glue that they use to make particle board gives off formaldehyde, and I realized that I would have to open my windows for a long time to make sure the gas dissipated.  That, of course, led to an increase in seasonal allergy symptoms.  My eyes were so red that one doctor thought I had pink-eye.  When the pink-eye medicine didn't work, the doctor realized it was an allergic reaction.  

I realize, now, that I should have aired out the pieces for the wardrobe chest in my dad's garage for a while before having him put it up.  And... I should have had more houseplants. 

I'm going to introduce the plants first, then give you a bit of information about the substances that they filter out of the air in your home.  In the photo above, the plants are numbered 1-6, with numbers 1-3 in the top row, left to right, and numbers 4-6 in the bottom row, left to right.   

1. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii):  This plant removes formaldehyde and acts as a natural humidifier.  It also filters out benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE).

2.  Snake Plant (Sansevieria trifasciata) aka Mother-in-law's Tongue: This plant absorbs nitrogen oxides and formaldehydeIt grows in low light, so it's perfect for rooms with no natural light source.

3.  Areca Palm (Dypsis lutescens): This plant is good for general air cleanliness.  It filters xylene and toluene from the air, and acts as an effective humidifier.

4.  Spider Plant (Chlorophytum comosum):  This is a great indoor plant for removing carbon monoxide, benzine, and xylene.  NASA says that spider plants are one of the best for removing formaldehyde from the air, as well.  

5.  Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum):  This is not a true lily plant.  It is mildly toxic to humans and animals, if ingested, but not as toxic as true lilies.  These plants are often placed in bathrooms or laundry rooms because they are known for removing mold spores.  They also remove formaldehyde and trichloroethylene (TCE).  They can also filter toluene  and xylene.

6. Gerbera (Gerber) Daisy (Gerbera):  These beautiful flowers remove benzene from the air.  They absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen overnight, which can improve your sleep.

Here are a few other plants that can improve your air quality.

Photo: emmar/Flikr
7. Aloe (Aloe vera):  This plant is easy to grow.  It is a sun-loving succulent, so needs to be put in a bright spot in your home.  It helps to clear formaldehyde and benzene.

Photo: elvisripley/Flikr
8. Golden pothos (Scindapsus aures) aka Devil's Ivy: This is another good plant for getting rid of formaldehydeYou can plant this fast-growing vine in a hanging basket, and it's a good one to keep in your garage.  This plant thrives in low light, and stays green, even when kept in the dark.

Photo: aplysia_06/Flickr
9. Chrysanthemum (Chrysantheium morifolium):  Besides brightening your home or office, this plant filters out benzene.  It needs direct sunlight to encourage the buds to open.

Photo: Forrest & Kim Starr
10. Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata):  The red puts color into your home.  This shrub can grow up to your ceiling, up to 15 feet, so it's a good plant for rooms with high ceilings. It likes moderate sunlight and occasional waterin.  It's best for removing xylene, tuolene, trichloroethylene (TCE), and formaldehyde.

Photo: dugasj/Flickr
11. Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina): This indoor tree also filters out formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene (TCE).   Caring for a ficus can be tricky.   The main thing to remember is that ficus does not like changes in terms of temperature, amount of light, or amount of water.  Keep the temperature above 55˚F, within the range of 66-75˚ (they do like it cooler at night).  They like light, but will grow in low light.  The trick is to acclimate them slowly to a new situation.  Ficus needs more water when the temperature and light levels are higher, and less water when conditions are cooler, with less light.   If you manage to get it right, your ficus will last a long time. 

Photo: cogito ergo imago/Flickr
12. Azalea (Rhododendron simsii):  This flowering shrub helps to take formaldehyde from the air.  Azaleas do best in cool areas around 60-65˚, so they're good for improving the air in your basement, if you can find a bright spot for them. 

Photo: gorgeous/Flickr
13. English Ivy (Hedera helix):  Believe it or not, this plant reduces airborne fecal-matter particles. It also filters out formaldehyde.  

Photo: a_sorense/Flickr
14. Warneck dracaena (Dracaena deremensis 'Warneckii') aka Warneck Dragon Tree:  This plant can reach a height of up to 12 feet.  It likes bright, but not direct, light, but it will grow in low light, as well.  You have to be sure not to give this plant too much water, or the roots will rot.   Like its cousin, the red-edge dracaena, it filters out xylene, tuolene, trichloroethylene (TCE), and formaldehyde.

Photo: ryoki/Flickr
15. Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema Crispum 'Deborah'):  This is another easy-to-care-for plant that grows in low light. It produces blooms and red berries, even in low light. Keep the soil moist, but not soggy. This plant likes high humidity.  Be careful if you touch the sap, though, as it causes mild irritation in humans.  If ingested, the sap causes irritation of the mouth, lips, throat and tongue, so it may not be a good choice if you have small children.  It filters formaldehyde, benzene and other toxins from the air.

Photo: crowstoburnaby/Flickr
16. Hart Leaf Philodendron (Philodendron oxycardium):  This climbing vine is a good one for people with kids or pets, although it is toxic when eaten.  It's known as a "workhorse" for filtering the air of formaldehyde and other VOC's.  (Volatile organic compounds), most of which I've already listed.  I have a philodendron plant cut from one that was growing in my grandmother's home many years ago. It's a good idea to wash off the leaves once in a while so that they can do their job well.

Photo: The Top Tenz
17. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis Exaltata): 
These are great for simple air exchange, giving off oxygen that we breathe in and absorbing the carbon dioxide that we breathe out. They also filter out formaldehyde, benzene, tuolene, xylene and trichloroethylene (TCE).  They like bright indirect sunlight and high humidity.  Keep the soil moist, but don't let it sit in water.  Soil composition for this plant should be 1 part garden soil, 2 parts humus, 1 p art coarse sand and 1 part peat.

Now, what are all these nasty things in the air, and where do they come from?

Formaldehyde is a common chemical with a strong, pickle-like odor.  It is used in thousands of products as a bonding agent or solvent.  It is used to make plywood, particle board, paneling, and pressed-wood products, as well as foam insulation.  Permanent press fabrics, shampoos, cosmetics, and even toilet paper contain small amounts of formaldehyde.  The formaldehyde gets released into the air as a gas.  Carpets have not been made using formaldehyde for some 30 years, now, but they do contain other chemicals that can interact with ozone in the air inside your home to produce formaldehyde.  If you buy a large piece of furniture made of particle board or install new carpet, keep your home well ventilated and use plants to help clear the air.

Nitrogen oxides are released into the air from motor vehicle exhaust in attached garages, or the burning of coal, oil, diesel fuel, or natural gas.  If you live near an electric power plant, this may be an issue for you. Nitrogen oxides are also released during the process of welding, electroplating, and engraving, so if you have a workshop where one of these processes take place, this may be an issue.  The most prevalent source of nitrogen oxides in the home is cigarette smoke.

Benzene vapors come from glues, paints, furniture wax and detergents, although many of these products have been reformulated since the late 1970s to reduce or eliminate benzene content.  About 50% of all benzene exposure in the United States is due to exposure to tobacco smoke. 

Tuolene is used in making paint, paint thinners, fingernail polish, lacquers, adhesives and rubber.  It is also used in some printing and leather tanning processes.

Xylene is a solvent used in leather, rubber, and printing industries. 

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is found in typewriter correction fluid, paint, spot removers, carpet-cleaning fluids, metal cleaners, and varnishes. 

Carbon monoxide sources include unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters wood stoves and fireplaces; gas cooking stoves; generators and other gasoline-powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; and tobacco smoke.   This is not to be confused with carbon dioxide. 

Carbon dioxide is produced when humans and animals breathe out.   Plants give off oxygen, which we breathe in, and we give off carbon dioxide, which plants absorb.  It's a nice exchange, and one of the main reasons why we need those rainforests.   Carbon dioxide is also produced when coal is burned and when volcanoes erupt.  

Mold spores grow and fill the air in humid conditions where rooms are not well ventilated.  Make sure your furniture is not blocking ventilation ducts.  Mold spores also grow in homes that have been flooded.  

Airborne fecal matter sounds gross, but it's not as much of a problem as it might appear.  Older, dried stools can become airborne on the wind, or when you are mixing it into compost.  Fortunately, the illness-causing organisms (viruses, bacteria, fungus or parasites) die when fecal matter dries out.  Normally, people don't have any problem handling this, should they breathe in fecal matter, but if your immune system is suppressed (after chemotherapy, for example, or if you have HIV), you may wish to be especially careful to flush stools immediately and clean your bathroom area regularly. This should be standard procedure, for everybody, anyway.