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Nov 23, 2021

Indoor Plants and the Air Around Them

Advice from Garden Club R.F.D.

House plants can be fun to care for, they can look good on Instagram, and they can be used creatively for the interior design. Indoor gardening, and gardening in general, has been on the rise this year, and many of the popular house plants sold to eager consumers have been marketed as great ways to purify the air in your home. One of house plants’ most repeated virtues is that they are little HVAC machines. House plants are alleged to be able to filter the air. For several years, research really did suggest that houseplants might cleanse the air of certain pollutants. But now, most scientists say that’s not right. Indoor vegetation cannot significantly remove pollutants from the air.

It’s a myth that you almost wish hadn’t been busted. From a quick internet search, you wouldn’t guess that this was the case. Popular home décor websites list a number of plants that promise to remove toxins and dangerous chemicals from the air, and several online retailers market air-purifying plants.

Michael Waring, an environmental engineer and indoor air quality expert at Drexel University, decided to examine what had been stated. In 2019, in a study published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, Waring reviewed 12 previously published scientific studies that tested 196 plants. He said that a typical experiment involved placing a plant in a small chamber and subjecting it to gaseous molecules called VOCs or volatile organic compounds. VOCs are molecules regularly released by common household products such as drywall, house paints, nail polish, shampoo and almost anything with a scent.

The experiments varied greatly. One showed that in just 24 hours, common household ivy could remove two thirds of the formaldehyde they were exposed to. However, Waring said that the densely gaseous chambers in the lab didn’t mimic the typical household or office environment. Waring explained that if you could imagine a small office, perhaps 10 by 10 feet, “You would have to put 1,000 plants in that office to have the same air-cleaning capacity of just changing over the air once per hour, which is the typical air-exchange rate in an office ventilation system.”  

Richard Corsi, a long-time air-pollution researcher, commented that houseplants do not clean the air “any more than an old pair of socks or a baseball cap that I would hang on the wall.”

Elliott Gall, a Portland State University professor who studies how buildings influence indoor air quality, remained skeptical that the modified plants would actually show any meaningful improvement outside of a lab setting.

While plants have been shown to provide a number of psychological benefits like stress relief, present-day researchers all emphasized that they shouldn’t be purchased as an air purifying tool. Nevertheless, please continue to enjoy your plants. Poinsettias, Christmas cactus and Amaryllis are wonderful additions to your home at this time of year.

Join the Garden Club R.F.D. at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Middletown to further explore the world of plants and flowers as well as to socialize. Members meet on the third Tuesday of each month at 10 am. For more information, contact Ruth Korn at