How house plants could be seriously good for your health

House plants can suck dangerous toxic chemicals out of the air - leaving it cleaner to breathe, according to new research.

Thursday, 25th August 2016, 1:42 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 2:59 pm

The study shows certain species act like natural air fresheners - removing harmful chemicals from the air we breathe.

Research has shown the air in offices and family homes often contains pollutants leading to ‘sick building syndrome’ where people suffer a range of symptoms including headaches, fatigue, difficulties in concentrating and respiratory problems.


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It has been estimated to blight the lives of up to three in 10 office workers. A study earlier this year estimates that annually nearly 100,000 people die from the effects of indoor air pollution.

Now new research has found the Scarlet Star (Guzmania lingulata), from South America and a member of the bromeliad family of plants, got rid of more than 80 percent of illness causing compounds.

That performed the best out of five plants tested, although the Dracaena Corn Plant (Dracaena fragrans massangeana) soaked up virtually all of a particularly pungent chemical common in nail salons.

Native throughout tropical Africa, it is grown in many homes and offices within the UK, US and Europe.


Scientists say their findings show picking the right houseplant can clear the air of dangerous pollutants in homes and offices.

Printers and cleaning products give off potentially harmful chemicals known as VOCs (volatile organic compounds).

Dr Vadoud Niri, of the State University of New York, said: “Buildings, whether new or old, can have high levels of VOCs in them, sometimes so high you can smell them.”

VOCs are compounds like acetone, benzene and formaldehyde that are emitted as gases and can cause short and long term health effects when inhaled. They can come from paints, furniture, copiers and printers, cleaning supplies and even dry cleaned clothes.


Explained Dr Niri: “Inhaling large amounts of VOCs can lead some people to develop sick building syndrome, which reduces productivity and can even cause dizziness, asthma or allergies. We must do something about VOCs in indoor air.”

The most common solution is to install ventilation systems that cycle in air from outside or methods using adsorption, condensation and chemical reactions.

But using plants to remove chemicals from indoor air, known as biofiltration or phytoremediation, is much simpler - and cheaper.

In addition to carbon dioxide plants can take up gases such as benzene, toluene and other VOCs.


NASA began studying this option in 1984 and found that plants could absorb these airborne compounds via their leaves and roots.

Since then, other studies have looked at how plants phytoremediate specific compounds, such as the cancer causing chemical formaldehyde, in a closed space.

Most of these studies focused on the removal of single VOCs by individual plants from the ambient air.

But Dr Niri wanted to compare the efficiency and the rate of simultaneous removal of several VOCs by various plants.

So his researchers built a sealed chamber containing specific concentrations of several VOCs and monitored the VOC concentrations over several hours with and without a different type of plant in the chamber.

For each plant type, they noted which VOCs the plants took up, how quickly they removed them from the air, and how much was ultimately removed by the end of the experiment.


The researchers tested five common house plants and eight common VOCs, and they found that certain plants were better at absorbing specific compounds.

For example, all five could remove acetone, the pungent chemical abundant at nail salons, but the dracaena plant took up the most, around 94 percent of the chemical.

Dr Niri said: “Based on our results, we can recommend what plants are good for certain types of VOCs and for specific locations.

“To illustrate, the bromeliad plant was very good at removing six out of eight studied VOCs - it was able to take up more than 80 percent of each of those compounds - over the twelve hour sampling period. So it could be a good plant to have sitting around in the household or workplace.”

Dr Niri says the next step in the research is to test these plants’ abilities in a real room, not just a sealed chamber.

He would eventually like to put plants in a nail salon over the course of several months to see whether they can reduce the levels of acetone that workers are exposed to.

The other three plants studied were Jade plant (Crassula argentea), the Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and the Caribbean Tree Cactus (Consolea falcata.)