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Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Clear the Air with House Plants

While many of us have been diligently adding insulation, caulking cracks and replacing weather stripping in our homes to prevent heat loss, a scary thing might be happening. Our homes might be at risk for Sick Building Syndrome.  According to an EPA fact sheet on the issue, "up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide may be the subject of excessive complaints related to indoor air quality (IAQ)."

This indoor pollution can be caused by poor ventilation systems, and the off gassing of volatile organic compunds (VOCs) found in paints, adhesives, cleaning agents, upholstery, carpets, building materials, solvents and other chemicals, as well as mold. People who work or live in a sick building may suffer with a variety of symptoms including headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, dry cough, nausea, difficulty concentrating and sensitivity to odors.

Most of us probably don't live in sick buildings. But even if our homes are relatively healthy places, there may still be a few nasty contaminants lurking about.

You can avoid some of these pollutants by replacing paint, carpet and upholstery with new versions that don't have VOCs. That gets pricey. You might add an air filtration system to your HVAC units, another expensive route. And of course, you can always open your windows and let fresh air in, though that's not the most attractive option in the dead of winter.

You might also think about adding some house plants to your life. It turns out that ordinary house plants can clean all kinds of nasty toxins from the air inside your home.   The following list, compiled in a 1980s NASA study, reveals the top 19 plants for cleaning indoor air:

1. Philodendron scandens `oxycardium', heartleaf philodendron
2. Philodendron domesticum, elephant ear philodendron
3. Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana', cornstalk dracaena
4. Hedera helix, English ivy
5. Chlorophytum comosum, spider plant
6. Dracaena deremensis `Janet Craig', Janet Craig dracaena
7. Dracaena deremensis `Warneckii', Warneck dracaena
8. Ficus benjamina, weeping fig
9. Epipiremnum aureum, golden pothos
10. Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa', peace lily
11. Philodendron selloum, selloum philodendron
12. Aglaonema modestum, Chinese evergreen
13. Chamaedorea sefritzii, bamboo or reed palm
14. Sansevieria trifasciata, snake plant
15. Dracaena marginata , red-edged dracaena

Some plants are better than others at removing specific compounds. For example, philodendrons and spider plants gobble up formaldehyde, while gerber daisies and chrysanthemums are known to go after benzene.

But you don't have to limit yourself to this list. Most plants will have some air cleaning capabilities. At the least they will absorb carbon dioxide from the air and replace it with oxygen.  The NASA study recommends one 6 inch plant per 100 sq. feet of space. So you might need 4 to 8 plants to keep the air in your family room healthy.

In future posts, we'll look at thrifty sources for house plants, and at techniques for making new plants from the ones you already have.


  1. Love the post Dee Dee!
    Asthma, allergy and a plethora of other health issues are triggered or caused by the air in our homes and offices, the places we spend 90% of our time. There are so many things we can do to improve our indoor air quality and the fairly frugal, as well as aesthetically pleasing, addition of some of these plants is a wonderful suggestion. They provide an added psychological benefit by giving our living spaces a more live and natural feel.


  2. Thanks for the info! We don't currently have any breathing problems, but will definitely use this list to start fresh in our new home, and keep it that way.

  3. Had no idea about the plants. Thanks for this information, Dee.