By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When you think of air pollution, you probably think about the air outside, especially in big cities. Not surprisingly, in these highly concentrated areas, tons of gases and chemicals from cars, planes, and factories get dispersed every day.
You know what is surprising though? Even in cities with some of the most polluted outdoor air, the air inside homes and other buildings is often even dirtier. Considering most people spend about 90% of their time indoors, this is a big deal.
Indoor air can be contaminated in a variety of ways. For one, microscopic pollutants can enter homes through cracks and other tiny openings.
At the same time, things already inside your home (like carpeting, stoves, and heaters) can contribute to poor air quality as well. Here are some of the worst offenders:
- Asbestos—a fire-resistant, insulating material used in construction—is a big one. While its use is down significantly over the past three decades, it’s not completely banned in the US! This is unbelievable considering asbestos has been definitively linked to four types of cancer: mesothelioma, lung, ovarian, and laryngeal.
- Formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene and trichloroethylene, and other industrial chemicals commonly found in furniture, carpeting, flooring, paints, lacquers, varnishes, sealants, etc.
- Radon, a gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in soil, can become concentrated in basements built on land with high uranium deposits.
- Carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and other gases are byproducts of household appliances (such as heaters) that burn oil, wood, gas or kerosene.
- Pet dander
- Tobacco smoke
- Mold and mildew
- Household cleaners and other products like air fresheners and candles
Short-term effects of indoor air pollution include eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches; fatigue; dizziness; and pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions. The long-term effects are even scarier. They can range from chronic asthma, COPD, and emphysema to heart disease, cancer, and liver, brain, or kidney damage.
By some estimates, more than 2 million people die every year as a result of polluted air inside their homes.
It’s terrible. We think we’re safe in our own homes, but we might as well be eating dinner under a smokestack every night!
Improve the Air in Your Home
The good news is that there are many simple things you can do to purify the air in your home.
Before even starting on your home though, you should give your body a stronger chance of fighting the effects of pollution from the inside out. One way to do this is by eating high-quality, high-vibrational, organic food. Much of what you’ll find in our environment is toxic and drains us of our health. This obviously includes pollution. When our vibrational energy is low, we become vulnerable to illness and disease. But when the energies of the things we eat, see, breathe in, etc. are in harmony with our cells’ natural vibrational energy, we have a better chance at good health. Besides a high-vibrational diet, other ways to enhance your vibrational energy are meditation and earthing/grounding (preferably in a park, forest, countryside, or other area with cleaner air).
The next step is to have your home tested for radon and your roof and foundation checked for leaks and other moisture problems that could contribute to mold and mildew. Also make sure wood- or gas-burning stoves and fireplaces are properly vented.
Other important steps include installing a carbon monoxide detector (which are inexpensive and easy to mount); using an air purifier in the main areas of your house; and reducing the use of chemicals for cleaning, pest control, etc. in favor of natural, chemical-free alternatives.
And here’s another easy thing that will not only improve air quality but also enhance the look of your home: air-purifying plants.
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Indoor Plants to the Rescue
As is so often the case, Mother Nature provides answers and remedies that science simply cannot. Simple, low-maintenance indoor plants have been shown to dramatically clean up the air in buildings that have poor or no ventilation.
This was first studied extensively in 1989, when NASA joined forces with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America. The study revealed two years of data on, as the scientists explain, “the potential use of houseplants as a tool in solving indoor air pollution problems on Earth.” They continued by saying their research, “has gone a long way toward reminding man of his dependence on plants for his continued existence and well-being on our planet.” Well said!
Some of the indoor plants that were part of this experiment include:
- Bamboo palm
- Chinese evergreen
- English ivy
- Gerbera daisy
- Corn cane
- Mother-in-law’s tongue
- Peace lily
- Pot mum
Each plant was sealed in a chamber, then airborne chemicals were injected into the chamber. The researchers collected air samples immediately upon the introduction of the chemicals, then again six hours and 24 hours later.
While all the indoor plants eliminated an impressive amount of contaminants from the air, the gerbera daisy, marginata, and peace lily removed the most trichloroethylene, the gerbera daisy and pot mum took out the most benzene, and the bamboo palm and dracaena removed the most formaldehyde. According to the NASA data, spider plants – which my wife has a penchant for and has filled our home with – also effectively removed formaldehyde from the air. Since spider plants are so easy to care for, as well as generate new generations of plants from, they’re a very simple, cost-effective way to filter your air!
More recent studies have confirmed the amazing ability of indoor plants to clean the air.
In a 2009 study, researchers from University of Georgia revealed similar findings to the NASA study. The plants they studied successfully removed various VOCs from the air, including benzene, octane, toluene, and tricholorethylene.
How exactly are indoor plants able to filter the air so effectively? A 2011 study did a great job explaining: “In addition to basic photosynthesis that removes carbon dioxide and returns oxygen to the air, plants can remove toxicants from air, soil, and water in at least two ways. First, they can metabolize some toxic chemicals, releasing harmless byproducts, and second, they can incorporate toxicants such as heavy metals into plant tissues, thus sequestering them.”
There’s truly no other totally safe, effective, all-natural ventilation system like indoor plants!
The Best Air-Purifying Plants
According to retired NASA scientist Bill Wolverton, who spent 30 years examining indoor plants’ air purifying powers, the best plants meet the following four criteria:
- Removal of chemical vapors
- Ease of care
- Resistance to insect infestation
- Rate of transpiration (evaporation of water from leaves)
Along with the ones listed above, other air-purifying plants that meet these criteria include areca palm, lady palm, dwarf date palm, and Boston fern.
Any of these indoor plants make excellent (and attractive) air purifiers. Most of them require minimal sunlight and little more than some water and occasional fertilizer. (But of course, it’s best to research care instructions for each individual plant so that you know exactly what its unique needs are.)
For best results, include a wide variety of indoor plants throughout your house. But be careful—the more plants you have, the more humidity they create, which can promote the growth of mold. (This defeats their purpose.) You can prevent this by removing excess water in the tray under the pot after watering, and covering the top of the soil with some Spanish moss or gravel.
- Claudio L. Planting Healthier Indoor Air. Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Oct;119(10):a426-7. Last accessed May 21, 2018.
- Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement. NASA. Sept. 15, 1989. Last accessed May 22, 2018.
- Yang D, et al. Screening Indoor Plants for Volatile Organic Pollutant Removal Efficiency. HortScience. 2009 Aug;44(5):1377-81. Last accessed May 22, 2018.
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