ashley englishsmall measures

small measures with ashley: growing fresh air

by Grace Bonney

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!

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  • You’ve almost convinced me to give this a try. My reluctance? History. My long and storied history of killing plants my friends have promised me….”even YOU cant kill this one….and somehow I did”

  • Nice article, thank you for sharing… Bernie you should try succulents, they live indoors very well… no need to buy them either, snap a branch with root off from a friend’s plant and pot it :)

  • very nice article…
    I’m an environmental scientist and work as a contractor for state government and I read reports about VOCs (and other nasty stuff) every day. I love the power of houseplants too :)

  • The first paragraph of this article made me laugh out loud. Very well written. I’ll be stopping by my local nursery and picking one up today. Thanks

  • Thanks Ashley for another great tip…
    To ad: there are Water Based Urethanes that are a bit less toxic. They require more coats for water resistance, but they are worth it. Also, choosing a hardwood like cedar or oak and leaving it unfinished is a great option. The wood costs more but will hold up for years without finish, and then you don’t have to buy or use the toxic stuff. And last, you could recycle old allready finished boards found from a yard sale, craig’s list, or a friend. :)

  • Hi Miss Liss! The top photo is of my ficus bonsai. I purchased it so long ago that I’m not certain exactly which species of ficus it is, but I do remember that it’s known for purifying the air.
    I bought it mostly because the trunk of it resembles a yogi in Lotus, or Padmasana, pose!

  • Thanks so much. I have been reading alot about this recently, and really have been considering doing this.

    I think it would be especially helpful for my boyfriends allergies and asthma, but I am a little worried about plants in general bothering his allergies.

  • Janet-I have seasonal allergies, but haven’t ever experienced any difficulty with my houseplants.
    A helpful hint for your boyfriend might be actually consuming plants, by way of herbs. Every morning, after I let my chickens out and feed all the cats (5!) and dogs, I make myself a big, strong mug of nettle tea. It’s done wonders for my allergies, as nettles are a natural anti-histamine. You can find them at any natural food store (I ordered a bulk bag of the stuff so I could have it regularly) or wild-harvest the herbs fresh (wearing gloves!) come springtime.

  • I loooove this article! My first internship with an interior designer I was a tester for low VOC paints. They placed me in a small, poorly-ventilated corner of the office and made me sniff paint…it became the running joke! But it is good to know that VOCs can be eliminated by my houseplants, if only you could convince my husband :)
    Thank you!

  • My mom has a pretty decently advanced lung disease. I am living at home to help out and am continually disgusted by the staleness in the air. How can someone with lung disease insist on living in a stale air environment? So I went to the plant shop and asked which plants are the best air cleaners. They weren’t totally sure… So I bought the ones I knew of and headed home. After a quick lecture on how “they are only going to die” when I’m no longer living here, we found that they made a wonderful impact on the room my sick mom lives in. Tomorrow I’m out for more as 3 aren’t nearly enough to make a difference in terms of air quality. But first, I’m picking up that book!!!

  • WoW!! How great to find out that I have almost all the plants you mentioned in my kitchen. I really enjoy looking forward to your column each week to learn something PRICELESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Dianne

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