As far as volatile environments go, I’d assume it’s probably safe to say that we all try to avoid them. A screaming toddler is no one’s idea of a good time. Potentially eruptive volcanoes induce a great deal of awe, fear, and cautious sidelong glances for those in their vicinity. Close encounters with yellow jackets and rabid raccoons are best left to the imagination. We probably prefer our interactions to be a bit more peace and calm-infused, thank you kindly.
So, it might be surprising to learn that the places we hold most dear, our homes, are teeming with volatility. Volatile Organic Compounds, more commonly referred to as “VOC’s”, are organic compounds, both natural and synthetic in origin, that quickly vaporize into the atmosphere. Many are considered toxic and are, accordingly, regulated by government agencies. Owing to their generally gaseous nature, however, many VOC’s are difficult to manage entirely. Instead, upper level limits of safe exposure have been generated.
Back in the ’80’s, when I was busy playing PacMan, wearing jelly shoes, and trying to emulate the wardrobe of Rainbow Bright, NASA was busy working on developing a manned base on the moon. Naturally. In their research, NASA learned that the indoor air quality for the space station inhabitants was particularly high in VOC’s, detecting more than 300 compounds. During that time, a researcher at the organization discovered that a number of common houseplants possessed remarkable capabilities for eliminating a number of these VOC’s from the air. They literally just absorbed all of the formaldehyde (found in the home in everything from carpet to table napkins), benzene (found in plastics, detergents, and lubricants, among other home locations), and trichloroethylene (capable of vaporizing in from groundwater supplies) from the air.
The benefits of these plants make them an ideal candidate for inclusion in the home. Personally, I’m crazy for houseplants and have kept them for years, even when, like now, I live steps away from a giant forest. In the winter, though, nothing beats a bit of indoor greenery. I do my best to keep carcinogenic, toxic materials out of my home, but many consumer goods contain VOC’s. I don’t yet live in a mud hut wearing nothing other than a deer hide I tanned myself (although I know folks who do and admire then immensely for it). Until that time, or, perhaps, in lieu of that time, I’ve opted to pepper the house with plants, cleaning up the air and brightening my spirits all the while.
If you’re asking yourself, “what are these toxin-fighting champions of the houseplant world?”, I invite you to check out How To Grow Fresh Air by Dr. B.C. Wolverton. It lists 50 plants known for their VOC-removal properties. Carry the book to your local nursery, like I did, and use it as a shopping guide for picking out some plants. They needn’t be large. It is suggested to use between 15-18 plants to clean the air in an 1,800 sq.ft. home, so, if you’re in a studio apartment in Brooklyn, simply halve that number. It’s also advisable to use terra cotta or ceramic pots, as plastic vessels simply reintroduce a number of the same chemicals you’re trying to remove. Plus, you’ll have a totally legitimate excuse for tricking out your place in cool pots, catered to your design aesthetic, be that Mid-Century Modern, Diva Glam, or California Rustic (like me!).
A good number of the houseplants in my home are showcased on two shelves beside the kitchen table. My husband easily fashioned them out of supplies readily available from any hardware or lumber store. He simply took two 4′ x 10″ pine boards, rounded off the front corners using a jig saw, coated them with polyurethane and a wood stain (nasty VOC-possessing substances that the plants could work their magic on!), and then mounted them to the wall with metal brackets. The kitchen feels so much more inviting because of these shelves and we’re literally breathing easier on account of them!