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Sloan Barnett

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Is Your Home Sick?

Posted: 10/20/11 01:50 PM ET

We tend to think the big, bad world outside is where the unhealthy air is. But for the main source of air pollution in your life you need to look closer to home. In fact, it is your home. The EPA says that in the average home, levels of organic pollutants are two to five times higher than outdoors, sometimes much, much higher. We're talking about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) here -- which off-gas from household cleaners, pesticides, dry-cleaning, paint, fireplaces, stoves, cabinets, furniture, paneling, upholstery, mattresses and carpets. And let's not forget about the naturally occurring biological contaminants too: bacteria, viruses, mold, mildew, fungus, pollen, animal dander, dust mites, moths and other insects and pests.

Kind of gives new meaning to the word "homesick," doesn't it? But the bad news comes with an upside: there are fairly easy steps you can take to clean up the air in your home. We've already talked about increasing ventilation and choosing non-toxic biodegradable cleaning products, organic mattresses and Teflon-free cookware that don't add chemicals to the air in your home. Biological contaminants can be reduced by controlling the humidity and preventing standing water or wet surfaces in your home.

Another great way to clean up your air at home is nature's own air purifier -- better known as plants! They reduce dust particles and contaminants so we don't have to breathe them.

Several years ago, NASA did a study to find out which plants were best to filter the air of the space station and they reported that plants are indeed able to scrub some pollutants out of the air. A presentation given at the TED 2009 conference explained how you can "grow" fresh air indoors. Plants were placed and tested for 15 years at Paharpur Business Centre and Software Technology Incubator Park in New Delhi, India. The research showed a 42 percent probability of increasing blood oxygen by 1 percent for people inside the building for just 10 hours -- which also happened to result in a 20 percent boost in worker productivity.

More recently, the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia found that indoor potted plants usually reduce VOCs by 50 percent to 70 perent and are able to clean indoor air in both air-conditioned and non air-conditioned environments. Margaret Burchett, the lead professor of the study, estimates that six or more plants in a 1,200 to 1,500 square foot house could create exceptional reductions in contaminants.

And in yet another study at Washington State University, dust was reduced by as much as 20 percent when plants were placed around the perimeter of a computer lab and small office for one week.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? Good -- let's go green, literally!

Will any old house plant work? Well, yes to some extent at least. Any time you bring a plant into the picture it increases the oxygen levels and filters the air -- but some are better than others.

The following three plants were found to be powerful clean air makers in the New Delhi study:
• Areca Palm (the Living Room Plant): produces oxygen in the day time and should be put outdoors once every 3-4 months.
• Mother-in-Law's Tongue (the Bedroom Plant): converts CO2 into oxygen especially at night.
• Money Plant (the Specialist Plant): excellent at removing formaldehyde and other volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) from the air.

The University of Technology identified the following plant varieties:
• Spathiphyllum (Petite)
• Spathiphyllum (Sensation)
• Dracaena marginata
• Dracaena (Janet Craig)
• Pothos (Devil's Ivy)
• Kentia Palm Qld.
• Umbrella Tree (Zanzibar)
• Aglaonema modestum (Silver Queen)

Research funded by the University of Georgia's Agricultural Experiment Stations found five additional plants that have high effectiveness of contaminant removal:
• Asparagus Densiflorus (asparagus fern)
• Hedera Helix (English ivy)
• Hemigraphis Alternataa (purple waffle plant)
• Hoya Cornosa (variegated wax plant)
• Tradescantia Pallida (purple heart plant)

Don't forget that this whole concept is based on a plant's ability to breathe. You'll need to dust them gently with a damp cloth periodically and keep their soil and root area clear since much of the air-scrubbing takes place there.

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