Pot plants fight pollution

Indoor plants make homes or offices more pleasant to be in, but they can also make them healthier by removing pollutants from the air.

The air you breathe when inside is actually more polluted than that outside. It contains all the fossil fuel emissions you get on the street, but in addition it has extra CO2 from people breathing out, as well as things called volatile organic compounds.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemicals that evaporate from plastic or synthetic furniture, fabrics, fittings, paints, varnishes, solvents, and so on. They include substances like benzene – a known carcinogen – as well as toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene.

Research by a team at the University of Technology, Sydney, has studied the ability for potted plants to remove these volatile chemicals. They used both laboratory settings with closed containers and real-world office settings, with a number of different plants, including Spathiphyllum wallisii ‘Sweet Chico’ (Peace Lily), Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’, Zamioculcas zamiifolia (Aroid Palm), Monstera deliciosa and Sansevieria trifasciata (Mother-in-law’s Tongue or Snake Plant).

Potted plant Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig' flowering (click to embiggen)
One of the species used in the study, Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig’ (photo by Nick J. Howe, via Wikimedia Commons)

In the offices they found that for high concentrations of VOCs (greater than 100 parts per billion), the pot plants could reduce them by 50-75%.

Interestingly though, the species of plant didn’t matter – instead, it’s what they call the ‘plant microcosm’, as bacteria in the soil or potting mix digest the VOCs. This means that generally the bigger the pot, the more pollution will be removed – although, there appears to be a limit after which adding more soil with more bacteria won’t remove more VOCs.

Only about two standard-sized pot plants were needed to service an average 12 square metre office – an indoor jungle with dozens of plants was not required.

The plants have another benefits too, like removing CO2 (although that requires them to be placed in sunshine to photosynthesise), reducing dust levels, stabilising temperature and humidity, and reducing noise.

With all that and the ability to remove toxic chemicals, how can you go wrong?

References

Wood RA, Burchett MD, Alquezar R, Orwell RL, Tarran J & Torpy F 2006, “The potted-plant microcosm substantially reduces indoor air VOC pollution: I. office field-study”, Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, vol. 175, no. 1-4, pp. 163-180, DOI: 10.1007/s11270-006-9124-z

Orwell RL, Wood RA, Burchett MD, Tarran J & Torpy F 2006, “The potted-plant microcosm substantially reduces indoor air VOC pollution: II. laboratory study”, Water, Air, and Soil Pollution, vol. 177, no. 1-4, pp. 59-80, DOI: 10.1007/s11270-006-9092-3

Burchett MD, Torpy F, Brennan, J & Craig A 2010, Greening the great indoors for human
health and wellbeing, Final report to Horticulture Australia Ltd

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