Plants Can Help Clean Indoor Air

Updated on January 10, 2018
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Friends say I have "green-fingers" and the garden certainly seems to respond to my efforts. I enjoy observing wildlife and being outdoors.

Flamingo Flower houseplants help purify indoor air.
Flamingo Flower houseplants help purify indoor air. | Source

Houseplants Help Reduce Indoor Pollution

Not only do houseplants help lift your mood, but they have also been shown to clean the surrounding air. NASA research in 1989 concluded that interior plants have an important role to play in controlling indoor pollution. The chemicals studied were ones that are known to affect health and included benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde. The plants chosen for the study were 50 common indoor varieties.

The full details of how well each of the plants performed are in “How to Grow Fresh Air - 50 Houseplants that Purify Your Home or Office". I recommend this book as it is well illustrated making it easy to choose a plant you would enjoy sharing your desk with. The author rates each plant for its effectiveness in removing indoor chemical pollutants. He also explains how easy or otherwise it is to care for each plant.

Plants For Clean Air

Some Health Damaging Pollutants Found Indoors

Fine particles
Combustion (room heating), cleaning, cooking, smoking.
Carbon monoxide
Combustion (room heating) and smoking.
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
Combustion (room heating), cooking and smoking.
Nitrogen oxides
Fuel combustion
Sulphur oxides
Coal combustion
Arsenic and fluorine
Coal combustion
Volatile and semi-volatile organic compounds
Fuel/tobacco combustion, consumer products, furnishings, construction materials, cooking
From "Indoor air pollution: a global health concern" British Medical Bulletin Vol 68 (1) 2003
Ficus Elastica Robusta (Indian Rubber Tree) helps cleans indoor air.
Ficus Elastica Robusta (Indian Rubber Tree) helps cleans indoor air. | Source

How to Reduce Indoor Air Pollution

1. Reduce or remove the source of the pollution. For example, have your boiler serviced regularly so that it burns without producing dangerous carbon monoxide. You could also forbid smokers from lighting up indoors as second-hand smoke contains carcinogens.

2. Improve room ventilation. Increasing the number of air changes per hour will remove many pollutants.

3. Use air cleaners to filter and remove pollutants. There are many mechanical air cleaners on the market, but they can be expensive to buy and maintain. The NASA research study has shown that house-plants provide a practical, low cost, and easy to maintain alternative.

Plants are natural air filters. African violets are a pretty indoor potted plant that cleans the air.
Plants are natural air filters. African violets are a pretty indoor potted plant that cleans the air. | Source

Indoor Pollutant Sources

The US Consumer Product Safety Commission says that indoor pollution sources include the following.

".. building materials, furnishings, and household products like air fresheners, release pollutants more or less continuously. Other sources ... include smoking, the use of unvented or malfunctioning stoves, furnaces, or space heaters, the use of solvents in cleaning and hobby activities, the use of paint strippers in redecorating activities, and the use of cleaning products and pesticides. High pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some of these activities."

Poor Ventilation And Indoor Contaminants Can Make You Unwell

How toxic is the air in your home?

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The ornamental fern (nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis) is a natural humidifier.
The ornamental fern (nephrolepis exaltata bostoniensis) is a natural humidifier. | Source

Detox Your Home with NASA’s Advice

The top ten best air filtering house plants according to NASA are as follows.

1. English Ivy (Hedera Helix). This is low maintenance and grows in virtually any indoor conditions. It is recommended for removing carcinogens from second-hand tobacco smoke.

2. Golden Pothos (Epipremnum Aureum). This was NASA’s top recommendation for the removal of formaldehyde from interior air. It is also good at removing carbon monoxide.

3. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis Exalta Bostoniensis). This large ornamental fern has great visual impact and is easy to care for. It is acts as an air humidifier as well as helping to eliminate formaldehyde.

4. Dracaena (Dracaena Deremensis). This is a very large plant which may not be suitable for many homes, but it can be useful for offices to eliminate trichloroethylene that comes from solvents and varnishes.

5. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea Elegans). NASA found this small decorative palm to be a good air filter for benzene and trichloroethylene as well as a great air humidifier. It is easy to grow and is resistant to insect attack.

6. Dragon Tree (Dracaena Marginata). This one is low maintenance and is recommended for offices and homes which need to remove xylene from the air. Xylene is released from car exhaust, paints, and cigarettes.

7. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum). This is an attractive plant and good at removing indoor air pollutants. However, if eaten, its leaves can be poisonous. It therefore should not be placed in areas that are used by children or pets.

8. Lady Palm (Rhapis Excelsa). This palm requires frequent watering in hot weather, so it is not as easy to care for as some of the other suggestions. It is an attractive plant and effectively reduces multiple indoor pollutants.

9. Spider Plant (Chlorophytum Comosum). This grows well in bathrooms and kitchens where the air is moist. It requires very little attention and removes carbon monoxide from the air.

10. Snake Plant (Sansevieria Trifasciata). The snake plant is a good all-rounder and is low maintenance. It absorbs formaldehyde and other chemical air pollutants.

NASA Clean Air Study Results in Big Improvement to Air Quality

In the last several years, a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities. Other research indicates that people spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors. Thus, for many people, the risks to health may be greater due to exposure to air pollution indoors than outdoors.

— US Environmental Protection Agency

Further Information

The research referred to in the article is “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement” B.C. Wolverton, A Johnson, and K Bounds. It was published as a NASA report on September 15th 1989.

The following government webpages provide further information about the causes and symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.

"Indoor Air Facts No. 4 Sick Building Syndrome" - US Environmental Protection Agency

"How to deal with sick building syndrome: Guidance for employers, building owners and building managers" - UK Health & Safety Executive


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