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Cleaning Indoor Air Pollution

Phytoremediation: A Plant-Based Solution for Pollution

Since the 1970, there has been a great emphasis on making homes more energy efficient. However, energy efficient homes are not always well ventilated. The less well-ventilated the home, the more toxic the air. Compound that with the toxins emitting from popular compounds in furniture, floorings, paints etc. and you can end up breathing in more toxins inside your home than outside.

It has been known that certain houseplants can remove pollution. This is called phytoremediation. It’s not only cost effective but very effective.

In August 2016, researchers presented findings at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, showing that specific, common houseplants each had a knack for stripping particular volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, from the air. This is noteworthy because homes and offices of all ages contain VOCs from a variety of sources, including off-gassing furniture, paint, carpeting and other flooring, building materials, copiers, adhesives, upholstery, printers, pesticides, cleaners, air fresheners and candles, co-workers’ perfume and other personal care products and other scented products and even dry-cleaned clothing. It’s not uncommon for building materials and furniture to off-gas VOCs, including carcinogenic formaldehyde, for weeks, months or even years. VOC’s can be ‘silent killers’ as most people are unaware they are breathing them in. Below is a youtube video about the study led by Vadoud Niri

The researchers tested houseplants known to be natural air filters alongside eight common VOCs, and they found that certain plants were better at absorbing specific compounds than others.


The bromeliad plant scored very well at removing six out of eight of the VOCs studied: it removed more than 80 percent of each of those compounds out of the air within a 12-hour timeframe. Dr. Niri says this is one of the best houseplants to have in the home or workplace.

Importantly, it helped rid the air of toluene, a toxic solvent that even at low levels can lead to tiredness and weakness. Paraffin candles, the most popular type of candles burned inside homes and offices, have been shown to emit toluene and benzene. Benzene is a carcinogenic solvent found in automobile exhaust. (If you are going to burn candles in the home, stick to unscented beeswax to reduce indoor pollution) Bromeliad was the most effective at removing benzene, with a 92-percent removal rate within 12 hours.


Acetone, the VOC found in nail polish remover, can trigger headaches, dizziness, central nervous system damage, and eye irritation. While all of the plants tested removed acetone from the air, dracaena topped them all; removing 94 percent of the chemical from the air. Acetone isn’t just found in nail salons; it off gasses from particleboard, household cleaners, rubber cement and paint.

That’s why Dr. Niri says he’s interested in doing further real-world testing to see if placing plants in nail salons could serve as a cost-effective way to help protect workers and customers from toxic emissions while being exposed to the substance. In fact, the inspiration for this study occurred when he and his wife walked into a nail salon — and he had to walk out immediately due to the overwhelming air pollution.

Spider Plant
Spider Plant

While the spider plant may not be so good at removing benzene and toluene, it’s better at cleaning the air of other pollutants. This plant removed more than 80 percent of the ethylbenzene, p-Xylenes, o-Xylene and acetone from the air in chamber testing.

Ethylbenzene is a toxic solvent found in inks, paints, fake rubber and pesticides. It’s also commonly injected into the ground during fracking operations, and is increasingly found in drinking water near these operations.

Xylenes have the power to trigger dizziness, memory problems, fatigue, tremors, breathing problems and even kidney damage. These VOCs are found in paint thinners, in print shops and cleaners. Dr. Niri’s testing found the spider plant ranked top in removing ethylbenzene (62 percent removal rate), p-Xylenes (92 percent removal rate) and o-Xylene (93 percent removal rate).

Jade Plant
Jade Plant

The Jade plant is also known as the “friendship tree,” maybe because of its ability to provide clean air! This plant removed more than 80 percent of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, p-Xylenes and o-Xylene. Of all the plants tested, it did the best job of removing toluene pollution from indoor air: it removed a whopping 91 percent of toluene from the air. And in the 70-percent range, it did an OK job of pulling acetone out of the air.

NB: Be sure to avoid plastic pots, since plastic also off gases and pollutes your air: use clay, ceramic – or any natural substance- pots instead. Also, look for OMRI certified potting soil (and even organic houseplants, if they’re available in your area.) OMRI can be found on the label and means the soil is approved for use in organic agriculture. This means there aren’t toxic chemical pesticides or additives in the soil.