Some people may think that ficus, yucca palm and cat grass are nothing more than random plants – the opposite is true. Indoor plants are capable of more than just gathering dust on their limp leaves; scientists have proven their ability to clean the air. The most important insights, though, have been gleaned from aerospace research.
Producing fresh air without opening the window – this must have been the guiding idea for a few NASA researchers roughly 30 years ago, when they hauled 18 indoor plants into their labs. They wanted to know one thing: could the plants be used as air purifiers in space shuttles? It can already be told that bamboo, ivy and such never established themselves as “must-haves” on board. But this must have only been for practical reasons. In fact, the researchers discovered that plants have a range of unique abilities when it comes to purifying air – some going far beyond the well-known photosynthesis.
They found that some species are specialized in certain air particles. Ferns, for example, can absorb formaldehyde and xylene, which cause skin irritations to the mouth and throat. Moreover, the popular dragon tree can do away with trichloroethylene and benzene, which can produce drowsiness and dizziness. The true “masters” of air purification turned out to be the peace lily and chrysanthemum, which can each absorb up to six different toxins from the air.
For example, the peace lily – also called spath – can cleanse the air of benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene and ammonia. It’s an easy-to-care-for plant that prefers semi-shady spots with no direct sun exposure. All in all, spath is an effective and natural air filter that provides a fresh and pleasant indoor climate. As such, it’s perfectly suited to working environments.
That’s all very good news – but apparently of no use for NASA. However, for daily life here on Earth, these plants hold enormous potential, especially considering the toxic particles that we humans encounter in various situations. They typically come from printers, paper fabrics and cleaning agents – toxic sources that can be found in virtually every office.
Given all of the evaporating particles and gases, offices can also be ideal breeding grounds for respiratory diseases – an issue that is becoming more and more pressing, especially in emerging countries such as China and India: as their peoples keep striving for jobs in the service sector, the office is becoming the number one workplace. In terms of hard numbers: in 2007, only a little more than a third of China’s workforce was in the so-called tertiary sector (38.8 percent). Ten years later, it was already more than half (55.8 percent).
In 2008, the Indian government released a long-term study confirming that plants can be very useful in such environments. In office buildings with numerous plants, reports of irritations to the eye decreased by 52 percent, breathing problems by 34 percent, and headaches by 24 percent – compelling arguments for adding some green to our fairly gray offices. By the way, for the optimum indoor climate, NASA came up with a recommendation: at least one plant for every nine square meters.
But greening up offices is more easily said than done: office spaces that are prone to extraordinarily high pollution from printers, copy machines and beamers are most often designed from a strictly functional perspective – leaving no extra room for little green helpers.
Here, filtration solutions from Freudenberg Filtration Technologies can offer some (nearly invisible) help. When attached to printers’ exhaust slots with velcro, they can remove up to 94 percent of all particulate matter from the air. And they also work the other way around: installed in the back of the exhaust slots, they can keep environmental dust from creeping in, and prolong the valuable machines’ service lives. Thus, the perfect office would most likely be a combination of both, plants and filters, making it not only a prettier place to work, but also a healthier one for our lungs.