Improving Indoor Air Quality with Houseplants

 Did you know that many of the synthetic building materials used in building and furnishing newer buildings are known to emit toxic compounds, including formaldehyde?

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most indoor air pollution comes from sources that are inside of the building. These chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can cause acute reactions at low to moderate levels of exposure and serious health issues in people who are exposed to high levels.  VOCs are most commonly released from things like adhesives, carpeting, upholstery, man-made wood products, copy machines, cleaning products, and pesticides. This problem is compounded by the fact that most newer buildings are constructed to be as airtight as possible to conserve energy used on heating and cooling the building. Thus, pollutants are trapped inside and have little opportunity to dissipate outside.

This is certainly not a good thing, especially considering the average American is spending a lot of time indoors between the office and their home. However, with the simple addition of some common house plants to your living/work space, you can breathe a little easier. A two-year study conducted by NASA found that plants improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. And some plants actually filter pollutants from the air. Several of the plants they studied were even found to absorb some of most common indoor air pollutants — such as formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and trichloroethylene — which are often released by the synthetic materials used in buildings and by chemicals found in household cleaners and solvents.

NASA conducted these air quality studies to find a way to ensure pure air for those living in a space station long-term. They found that in a closed environment, there are certain species of plants that absorb polluted air, filter it, and release clean air back into the atmosphere.  Fortunately, many of these plants are easily found, as they are common houseplants, and most of them require little care. This makes the addition of such plants a plausible clean air solution for everyone, even those who don’t have a “green thumb.”

You may be wondering just how many plants you need to actually improve the condition of the air inside of your home. According to NASA, adding 15-18 plants in at least 6-8 inch diameter pots (common tabletop size) will improve the air quality in an average home. Additionally, floor plants 3 feet or taller in a pot with a diameter of 10 inches or more will increase these positive effects on the air inside your home. If having that many plants seems a little overwhelming to you, recognize that any number of these types of plants is going to decrease the level of pollutants trapped inside of your home, which is certainly a positive step in the right direction.

Additionally, it is important to note that many of the plant species recommended  by NASA are quite easy to care for and need only a few minutes of maintenance a week. To care for houseplants, simply check the soil with your finger every couple days. If the soil is dry, give the plant some water. If it is still damp give the plant a day or two, then check again to see if it needs water. The plant will let you know if it is under or over watered by turning yellow or wilting. Most plants will endure your initial mistakes while you are learning how to best care for them.

The following is a list of plants that have been shown to improve air quality in a closed environment. Try adding a few of these plants to your home or office for a breath of fresh air indoors.


English ivy (Hedera helix)

This hearty plant filters formaldehyde aerosols, benzene, and fecal particles from the air in your home. It’s leaves are poisonous, so it should be kept away from pets and children. English ivy is a vining plant comes in many different colors, shapes, and sizes. It prefers partial shade to bright light, but not direct sunlight, as it is not fond of high heat.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

The spider plant excels at removing poisonous gases and other pollutants, such as formaldehyde and xylene. This plant is a very attractive and popular houseplant, as it is very easy to care for. It does well in any conditions and will even survive some neglect. It has long, grassy leaves and can grow rapidly if properly cared for.

Golden pothos (Epipiremnum aureum)

This vine does an excellent job of removing household chemical vapors from the air, including formaldehyde,benzene, and xylene. It has heart-shaped leaves and is perfect in a hanging basket, as it grows long trailing stems that easily overtake its container. It tolerates many different conditions and is an attractive and very easy houseplant to grow. Care should be taken with this plant, however, as it is poisonous to small animals, such as dogs and cats, and children.

Peace lily (Spathiphyllum `Mauna Loa’)

The peace lily is a exceptional air purifier that also filters out many environmental pollutants, including benzenes, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, alcohols, and acetone. It also removes mold spores from the air, making it a great addition to your kitchen, laundry room, or bathroom. It is easy to grow and can withstand a decent amount of neglect. It dislikes direct sun and can even handle a shady spot. Water only when the soil is dry as this plant does not like to be over watered.

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)

This plant is excellent at purifying the air in your home, in addition to filtering out airborne pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde. It has the exceptional ability to respond to the level of chemical vapors in the air and the higher the concentration of VOCs, the harder the plant works to remove them. It is a common house plant that grows best in low light with less water. It has shiny green leaves and its poisonous berries should be removed if you have children or pets.

Bamboo or reed palm (Chamaedorea sefritzii)

This plant is one of the best for filtering out both  benzene and trichloroethylene. It also effectively filters formaldehyde from the air and works as a natural humidifier. It likes indirect, bright light and prefers to remain moist, but doesn’t like to sit in water.

Snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata)

This evergreen ornamental plant tolerates irregular watering and low light. It is excellent at absorbing formaldehyde, nitrogen oxides, and various other airborne chemicals present in your home.

Heartleaf philodendron (Philodendron scandens `oxycardium’)

This house plant is excellent at removing formaldehyde from the air, especially in high concentrations, as well as other toxic indoor vapors. It is extremely easy to grow and propagate. Cuttings placed in soil or water will quickly develop roots. It climbs vigorously and is well-suited for hanging baskets. Philodendron prefers well drained soil and partial shade. It should be noted that this plant is poisonous and thus, care should be taken when placing it in the home.

Elephant ear philodendron (Philodendron domesticum)

This house plant is easy to grow and propagate, as with the heartleaf variety. It is especially effective at removing formaldehyde from the air. As with the heartleaf variety, it prefers well drained soil and indirect light. It is also poisonous.

Selloum philodendron (Philodendron selloum)

Like the previously listed philodendrons, this plant is easy to care for and filters the pollutants from the air in your home, though the heart leaf and elephant ear varieties do so more efficiently.

Red-edged dracaena (Dracaena marginata)

This attractive plant has thin leaves edged with red. It effectively removes formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxins from the air. It is slow growing and requires little maintenance. It is, however, poisonous to dogs.

Cornstalk dracaena (Dracaena fragrans `Massangeana’)

The corn dracaena prefers good light, but can thrive in a variety of conditions. It also is very good at filtering a variety of chemical vapors from the air inside your home.

Weeping fig (Ficus benjamina)

This plant is an effective filter of many indoor air toxins. It thrives in bright sunlight, but can handle partial shade. It should be watered moderately as it prefers well drained soil. This plant shouldn’t be moved around often, as it is sensitive to changing conditions.


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