Author/s: Tony Jaros
Issue: Dec, 1997
My office has been remodeled, and I'm concerned about my exposure to all the chemicals from the paint and carpet glues. What can I do to counteract the effects? I remember reading that plants can help remove airborne toxins.--G. Lee, Los Angeles, Calif.
Talk about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. For more than 20 years now, homeowners, corporations and the federal government have all urged builders to seal off structures from summer's crushing heat and winter's frozen winds. The builders obliged, helping us maintain an interior environment that's a balmy 72 degrees while still conserving precious energy and money. But I'm reminded of the old adage: Be careful what you wish for. The builders did a great job of keeping the outside out and the inside in: Fumes and bacteria, which would normally have exited to the outside, are now sealed with us inside structures that simply don't ventilate well. Indoor air pollution has become such a problem, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now ranks it as one of the top five public health threats.
Office buildings are among the worst environments. Along with the glues and paint that you mentioned, office workers also have to contend with contaminants such as ammonia, xylene, toluene, benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde, leached from printers, photocopiers, fax machines, paper and pressboard furniture--the list is endless. Daily exposure to this toxic cocktail has bred its own disorder: Sick Building Syndrome. It's characterized by burning eyes and throat, breathing problems, headaches, lethargy and other allergy-like symptoms. Not surprisingly, 20 percent of workers believe that poor indoor air quality compromises their health, according to the American Lung Association.
The good news is you're also right about plants' ability to help filter out these poisons. Simply keeping a plant on your desk can significantly improve the air you breathe, according to B.C. Wolverton, Ph.D., a scientist who's worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on creating inhabitable space stations by using plants. "We've taken plants, put them in sealed chambers and exposed them to literally hundreds of chemicals," says Wolverton. "We've found that the plants literally suck these chemicals out of the air." In fact, under controlled conditions, plants are able to remove 99.9 percent of toxins from polluted indoor air, he says.
Plants accomplish this feat by absorbing the chemicals into their leaves and breaking them down. Microbes around a plant's roots also take care of the toxins by converting them into plant food.
Some plants specialize in removing one toxin or another. Rubber plants and spider plants, for instance, are effective against formaldehyde; chrysanthemums work well against the toxins in new paint and the benzene from new plastics; azaleas can take care of the irritants in foam carpet pads or insulation; dwarf date palms remove xylene. Good all-rounders include bamboo and areca palms, the Boston fern, peace lily and Gerbera daisy.
"Place a nice-sized Lady palm [for instance] in a 10- or 12-inch container on your desk, near your bed or near your computer-anywhere you spend a lot time, "advises Wolverton. "The more plants you can place in your living space, the better."
RELATED ARTICLE: Five Super Air Cleaners
These easy-to-care-for plants all scored high marks for their ability to remove chemical vapors. Whether you work in a cave-like cubicle or a sunny corner, one of these "office" plants will work for you.
1 Florist's mum (Full sun and semi-sun) Best seasonal plant for removing benzene, ammonia and formaldehyde.
2 Kimberley queen (Semi-sun to semi-shade) Effective for removing alcohols and formaldehyde.
3 English ivy (semi-sun to semi-shade) Adept at eliminating formaldehyde.
4 Dracaena "Janet Craig" (semi-shade) Scored well for its ability to remove indoor toxins; can grow for decades.
5 Golden pothos (semi-shade to shade) Easy to grow, it ranks high as an all-round air cleaner.
Source: How To Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants that Purify Your Home or Office by B.C. Wolverton, Ph.d., (Penguin Books, 1996)
Tony Jaros is a former associate editor at Vegetarian Times.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Vegetarian Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group
Published on 21 April 2003