Clean indoor air with plants?

Initial research by a chemist in the United States shows that potted plants may be able to help lower the level of harmful compounds in the air

WASHINGTON • The first time Mr Vadoud Niri walked into a nail salon, he quickly had to walk straight out.

"I went with my wife and couldn't handle it," he said. "You could smell all the VOCs."

VOCs is short for volatile organic compounds - pollutants such as acetone, formaldehyde and toluene that easily become gases and pollute indoor air.

Mr Niri, a chemist at the State University of New York at Oswego, knew that if he could smell these compounds in the air, it probably was not great to be breathing it.

So when he got back to his laboratory, he started looking for ways to mitigate the pollutants' noxious effects. He came up with a surprisingly simple solution: potted plants.

Dracaena (above), a tough houseplant that requires little attention, could turn out to be an effective air purifier. PHOTO: ST FILE

According to his research, common house plants are effective at removing VOCs from the air.

In 12 hours, an unassuming bromeliad (a tropical plant with long, sword-like leaves and spiky red flowers) removed at least 80 per cent of six compounds from the air inside a 76-litre container (roughly the size of a sedan's gas tank).

A dracaena, with its long, strap- like leaves, was exceptionally good at gobbling up acetone - it removed 94 per cent of the gas from the air.

Spider plants were lightning-fast - the minute one was placed inside the container, the concentration of VOCs immediately began to go down.

In some ways, indoor air pollution can be worse than that outside.

Concentrations of VOCs are typically two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

VOCs are emitted by building materials, such as paint, furniture, dry- cleaned clothing, cleaning supplies, automobile fuel and printer ink.

In large enough doses, many of them can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, skin problems, breathing problems and memory impairment.

Low doses of exposure to some VOCs over long periods of time have been shown to cause liver and nervous system damage and perhaps even cancer.

Mr Niri's research is a long way from being put to use. It has not been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal; and even if it passes that hurdle, cleaning the air in a small, sealed container is very different from purifying entire rooms.

After that, he still needs to test his plants' effectiveness in real-world situations and to make sure that his plants are as effective, if not more effective, than traditional ventilation systems.

If that research goes well, he hopes to test dracaena at nail salons soon.

However, he adds that he thinks his research so far does point to a possible, inexpensive mechanism for lowering concentrations of pollutants in salons and myriad other kinds of rooms.

"We all know, but most of the time we completely forget, that air is the most consumed material by humans," he said.

"Each of us breathes over 3,000 gallons of air each day, and even though you could go days without food and hours without water, you would last only a few minutes without air.

"That's why air quality is extremely important and air pollution is an important environmental threat to human health."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline Clean indoor air with plants?. Subscribe