Preventing Air Pollution with Nature

Most people, at least in Los Angeles, spend some time thinking about the quality of the food they eat and water they drink. But the average person doesn’t realize that he or she consumes pollution twenty four hours a day, through breathing. That’s right. You breathe in about sixty pounds of air a day, making the quality of the air we breathe one of, if not the, greatest invisible threat to one’s well-being.

In the 1970’s, during the energy crisis, buildings became more and more energy efficient. So while that was good for saving money and using less non-renewable resources, all of the chemicals in new carpet, new office furniture, copy machines, computers, and more, was now getting trapped indoors and creating indoor air that was even worse than the outdoor air. Some people suffering from “Toxic Building Syndrome” suffer for years before realizing their environment is to blame, and others just push forward, attributing the dis-ease they feel at work to other conditions, such as stress.


Without focusing too much on the problem, I’d like to offer a solution that can reduce stress and remove volatile organic compounds from the air you take in at work and home. This solution is so simple, anyone can try it. Back in the 1980’s, when astronauts were getting sick from the air-tight space shuttles, a man named Dr. Wolverton studied the effects of common houseplants on cleaning the air, and found that some miracle plants do more than convert carbon dioxide into oxygen: Some plants actually help remove chemicals associated with cancer, like formaldehyde and benzene, which are found in auto exhaust as well as common household products such as paints and detergents. This removal is done mostly through beneficial, symbiotic microbes that live in the plants’ roots, but also through the plant’s leaves and transpiration (release of water into the air). Moreover, plants can also reduce airborne illness. Green plants are also considered “good feng shui” that increase the flow of prosperity.

So, let’s talk about which plants might be right for you, and provide you with some tips for growing success. First of all, you need about one plant per hundred square feet to get maximum results. If your home is 1,000 square feet, that’s ten good size plants. If you don’t have a green thumb, the easiest plant to start with is probably the golden pothos, which looks great even if you neglect it, and can survive longer than most if you forget to water it. Snake plants are also tough, but be careful not to overwater them, or they rot. They do better with more, rather than less, sun. Pothos do alright in low light areas, and if you have little to no light, try the Chinese evergreen, which gets more effective at removing toxins as time goes by.

If flowers are more your style, orchids, which can be hard to grow, are good at removing some of the chemicals you find at the nail salon, which is perhaps why you often see them there. Though I do very well with ferns, I love to water, and it’s hard not to overwater my orchids, or forget about them when they’re not in bloom. Orchids should be grown in moss or bark, never soil. The best pots I’ve found are imported Italian terra cotta with holes for air. Orchid roots need air. Even though my orchids have all died in less than 18 months, I keep buying more. Here in Los Angles, we have a flower district where orchids can be purchased for as little as $7.00, but if you live elsewhere in the U.S., keep in mind that Home Depot has a great return policy. Be careful with any new plant, and check the soil, leaves, and pot for insects. You don’t need one plant to infect all the others. Another important care tip, especially if you live in an urban environment, is to regularly clean the leaves with a damp paper towel. Pollutants that collect on the stoma can eventually block the plant’s ability to breathe if left untended to.

For long term survival, it’s hard to beat the spider plant. Not only do they require infrequent watering, but they multiply by sending out little baby plants that dangle from their mother, making attractive hanging basket displays. These babies can be removed and rooted in a glass of water and then placed in new pots. Soon all your friends and neighbors will have spider plants too!

NASA and Clean Air

The following report is from the website Spinoff, headed by NASA, detailing their vast and valuable contribution to improving the air quality on Earth.

Although one of NASA’s goals is to send people to the far reaches of our universe, it is still well known that people need Earth! We understand that humankind’s existence relies on its complex relationship with this planet’s environment– in particular, the regenerative qualities of Earth’s ecosystems.

Dr. Bill Wolverton

In the late 1960s, Dr B.C. “Bill” Wolverton was an environmental scientist working with the U.S. military to clean up the environmental messes left by biological warfare centers. At a test center in Florida, he was heading a facility that discovered that swamp plants were actually eliminating Agent Orange, which had entered the local waters through government testing near Eglin Air Force Base. After this success, he wanted to continue this line of research and moved to what was at the time called the Mississippi Test Facility, but is now known as NASA’s Stennis Space Center.

Cleaning the Air With Plants

He was funded by the Space Agency to research the environment’s natural abilities to clean itself as part of what is now Stennis’ Environmental Assurance Program. The goals were to clean the Center of chemicals left behind through wastes and to supply information to NASA engineers about closed-environment “eco” support that may prove helpful in designing sustainable living environments for long-term habitation of space. A tertiary goal was to provide usable technologies to NASA’s Technology Utilization Program, essentially making the research available to the American public.

Cleaning Dirty Water With Plants

The first step for Wolverton’s research was to continue the remediation work he had started with the military. He was tasked with using plants to clean waste water at the NASA Center. To this day, Wolverton’s design, which replaces a traditional septic system with water hyacinths, is still in use. His research then turned to using plants to improve air quality.

Volatile Organic Compounds

In 1973, NASA scientists identified 107 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air inside the Skylab space station. Synthetic materials, like those used to construct Skylab, give off low levels of chemicals. This effect, known as off-gassing, spreads the VOCs, such as formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene, all known irritants and potential carcinogens. When these chemicals are trapped without circulation, as was the case with the Skylab, the inhabitants may become ill, as the air they breathe is not given the natural scrubbing by Earth’s complex ecosystem.

Plants as Air Purifiers

The BioHome at NASA’s Stennis Space Center was 45 feet long, 16 feet wide, and used common indoor house plants as living air purifiers.

Around the same time that Wolverton was conducting his research into VOCs, the United States found itself in an energy crisis. In response, builders began making houses and offices more energy efficient. One of the best ways to do this was to make the buildings as airtight as possible. While keeping temperature-controlled air in place, this approach reduced circulation. Combined with the modern use of synthetic materials, this contributed to what became known as Sick Building Syndrome, where toxins found in synthetic materials become concentrated inside sealed buildings, making people feel sick.

Cleaning Indoor Air With Plants

The solution Wolverton sought was not to make indoor environments less energy efficient or to move away from the convenience of synthetic materials; rather, the plan was to find a solution that restores personal environments. The answer, according to a NASA report later published by Wolverton in 1989, is that “If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature’s life support system.” Plants.

NASA and the BioHome

One of the NASA experiments testing this solution was the BioHome, an early experiment in what the Agency called “closed ecological life support systems.” The BioHome, a tightly sealed building constructed entirely of synthetic materials, was designed as suitable for one person to live in, with a great deal of the interior occupied by houseplants. Before the houseplants were added, though, anyone entering the newly constructed facility would experience burning eyes and respiratory difficulties, two of the most common symptoms of

‘Sick Building Syndrome.’ Once the plants were introduced to the environment, analysis of the air quality indicated that most of the VOCs had been removed, and the symptoms disappeared.

To read the rest of this article, visit The Hollywood Sentinel at the link below and click on the table of contents tab to the left of that page on the title of the story, “Living Better With Cleaner Air,” and visit the NASA Spinoff website.

visit NASA spinoff to further read how NASA is benefiting the environment at