Global Earth Challenge

Houseplants make good company, but can they also reduce air pollution?

Houseplants are the unlikely new stars of Instagram. But a houseplant is so much more than a pretty face.

A new guide to the most popular flora on “houseplant Instagram” suggests that a “potted plant is good company, something to look after — an exotic pet that won’t incur the wrath of your landlord.” The guide also points out that plants benefit mental health, which is especially relevant given the current pandemic.

According to some, however, one of houseplants’ best benefits is its ability to purify the air. But just how true is that claim?

In the late 70s, NASA scientist Bill Wolverton found certain plants are more effective at removing “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) from the air than others. VOCs are chemicals that arise from typical household products, such as wall paint, nail polish and other scented substances. They can cause short-term discomfort, and can lead to cancer.

Some claim, however, that houseplants are only effective air purifiers in a hermetically sealed environment, such as a research lab or a space station. The amount of houseplants needed  to completely “purify” the air in a house or office would be unfeasible, expensive and time consuming and would likely lead to new issues, such as humidity.

“You would have to put 1,000 plants in [a 7.5m2] 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,” according to Michael Waring, an engineering professor at Drexel University.

But complete purification doesn’t need to be the end goal. 

“[E]ven three potted plants in an average-sized office will reduce airborne volatile organic compounds to an extremely low level,”  Fraser Torpy, a lecturer in the School of the Environment at University of Technology, Sydney, wrote in The Conversation

Torpy refers to a study conducted at the university, which concluded that potted plants are a low-cost, sustainable and self-regulating solution to indoor air pollution — and, as a result, improve our wellbeing and productivity. 

If you’re worried about the level of air pollution in your home, you may want to do more than simply stock up on houseplants and get on with your life. For example, you can also test your air, install an air purifier, create more ventilation and vacuum more often, in addition to nurturing an indoor forest of houseplants. After all, houseplants are still beautiful, great company and good for your health.

Try these natural steps to improve the air quality in your home or workplace:

  • Open windows (though be mindful of busy traffic nearby)
  • Cycle or walk places instead of driving
  • Address damp and mold problems (and avoid these problems by hanging wet laundry outdoors or in a ventilated area)
  • Clean regularly with natural cleaning products and ventilate while cleaning
  • Quit smoking and ban indoor smoking in your home

The healthiest attitude may be to remember that plants are not tools. Nurture, love and live with the indoor plants that you find to be the best company, rather than ‘installing’ them like a purification system. 

We all breathe the same air. Let’s keep it clean. Maybe that means buying house plants, or maybe it means joining Earth Day Network’s citizen science project, Earth Challenge, to provide data on the air quality in your area. Whatever you do, stay up to date on the environmental movement