Houseplants That May Purify Indoor Air

Houseplants That May Remove Volatile Organic Compounds from Indoor Air

Houseplants have an almost magical ability to transform an otherwise drab and dreary house into an aesthetically pleasing, peaceful home.  But can they also improve indoor air quality? Studies conducted by NASA and other agencies suggest that they can. And because improving indoor air quality is an important part of COPD management, houseplants may serve as a harmless addition to the air filtration system in your home.

Indoor Air Pollutants and Air Purifiers

Indoor air pollutants, such as carbon dioxide, benzene, formaldehyde and mercury, are classified as volatile organic compounds, or VOC's. VOC's come from building materials, home and personal care products and behaviors like smoking, cooking or wood-burning stoves. Being carbon-based chemicals, VOC's are notorious for causing, or exacerbating, health problems, especially in children and adults with existing respiratory illnesses.

A number of people who have COPD use air purifying systems with HEPA filters to purify the air they breathe indoors. While air cleaning systems like these may remove some toxins from the air, they don't remove all of them. In fact, certain types actually raise indoor ozone concentrations above well-established safety levels.

Which Plants Clean Air Most Effectively?

All plants undergo photosynthesis, a process that removes carbon dioxide from the air and in turn, releases oxygen. The NASA Clean Air Study and Bill Wolverton, retired NASA scientist, found that in addition to carbon dioxide, houseplants are capable of removing a significant amount of toxic chemicals from the air.  Which plants do scientists recommend?

After assessing a large number of houseplants to determine which were most effective in removing VOC's, the following were found to top the list:

1
Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum wallisii)

Peace Lily
Peace Lily.

For many people, the Peace Lily is an all-time favorite indoor or outdoor plant, especially when it blooms in the spring. In the home, this graceful flowering plant thrives on light to moderate shade. It tops the list in air-purifying plants as it removes benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene and ammonia from the air you breathe indoors.

2
Devil's Ivy (Epipremnum aureum)

Devil's Ivy
Devil's Ivy. Flickr.com

Running a close second behind the Peace Lily is the Devil's Ivy. Many gardening experts say its the easiest plant to grow indoors. Effective at removing benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene from the air you breathe inside your home, this indoor plant prefers bright, indirect light.

3
Mother-in-Law's Tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata)

Mother-in-Law's Tongue
Mother-in-Law's Tongue.

With stiff, upright leaves that reach up to 4 feet tall, they don't call this plant Mother-in-Law's Tongue for nothing. This hardy plant makes an excellent choice for beginning indoor plant enthusiasts because it can withstand a variety of indoor conditions and takes only over-watering or not watering at all, to kill it. According to NASA and other studies, this hardy plant can clear indoor air of benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene.

4
English Ivy (Hedera helix)

English Ivy
English Ivy.

Ivy plants like the English Ivy are not the easiest plants to grow indoors, but, because of their unique trailing/climbing abilities, they make a lovely addition to indoor topiaries. The English Ivy has a natural ability to filter nasty pollutants from indoor air, including benzene, formaldehyde, xylene and toluene.

5
Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

Lady Palm
Lady Palm.

The Lady palm is every bit as beautiful as her given name. Under the right conditions, this fanning palm is fairly easy to grow indoors and has been found to effectively remove formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, and ammonia from the air inside your home.

6
Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

Weeping Fig
Weeping Fig.

The Weeping Fig grows beautifully in a brightly lit room and may even do well in direct, morning sunlight. It does an excellent job of clearing the air you breathe indoors of formaldehyde, xylene and toluene.

7
Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Boston Fern
Boston Fern.

Hardy and attractive, the Boston Fern is one of the most common of all indoor ferns. They thrive in warm, humid conditions, so if you're sensitive to humidity, they may not be the best choice for you. If you do choose a Boston Fern, know that, when grown indoors, they effectively remove formaldehyde, xylene and toluene.

8
Dwarf Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii)

Dwarf Date Palm
Dwarf Date Palm.

The Dwarf Date Palm is the only suitable date palm you can grow indoors. They thrive in the brightest light you can find and even love direct sunlight. As an indoor plant, this feathery friend is capable of removing formaldehyde, xylene and toluene.

9
Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens)

Areca Palm
Areca Palm.

At one time, the Areca palm was on the endangered species list. Indoors, it has the ability to filter out xylene and toluene from the air. With long fanning leaves, the plant is sensitive to over-watering and does best in bright light.

10
Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)

a-rubber-plant.jpg
Rubber Plant. Jason Jones

Last but not least, is the Rubber Plant. Easy to grow indoors, it thrives in bright, warm rooms when it's regularly watered and fertilized.  As an air-purifying plant, it's best at removing formaldehyde from air inside the home and must be re-potted annually, until it's reached its desired size.

11
Before You Buy a Houseplant

Houseplants
Before You Buy a Houseplant. Getty Images, user Dan Kitwood

Although several well-known studies have found that houseplants are effective at purifying indoor air, some studies point out that the soil and pots in which they grow, along with the pesticides used to treat them, contain harmful microorganisms that can potentially contaminate indoor air.

If you're planning to utilize houseplants as part of a comprehensive plan to improve respiratory health, NASA suggests using 1 house plant for every 100 square feet of space.

Retired NASA scientist, Bill Wolverton says, in order to effectively remove VOC's from the air in your home, houseplants should be kept in energy-efficient, non-ventilated buildings. 

Before investing in houseplants, make sure you know how to properly care for them and that your doctor is aware of how you plan to use them.

Some houseplants can be toxic to animals. Before you buy one, talk to your local Gardening Store or Nursery to see which ones are safest for indoor use.

Sources:

Claudio, Luz PhD. Planting Healthier Indoor Air. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2011;119(10).

Ionetti, Marie. Gardening Expert. About.com. Accessed Nov. 29, 2013.

Pottorff, L. Plants Clean Air Inside Our Homes. Colorado State University; Denver County Extension Master Gardener. 2010.

Sublett JL, et al. Air filters and air cleaners: rostrum by the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Indoor Allergen Committee. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(1):32;38. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2009.08.036 [PMC free article] [PubMed]

VanZile, Jon. Houseplants and Indoor Gardening Expert. About.com. Accessed Nov. 29, 2013.

Wolverton, B. C. (1996) How to Grow Fresh Air. New York: Penguin Books.

Wolverton, B. C. and J. D. Wolverton. (1993). Plants and soil microorganisms: removal of formaldehyde, xylene, and ammonia from the indoor environment. Journal of the Mississippi Academy of Sciences 38(2),11-15.

Yang DS, et al. Volatile organic compounds emanating from indoor ornamental plants. HortScience. 2009;44(2):396-400.

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