In his podcast Just One Thing Dr Michael Mosley looks at surprisingly simple ways to boost your health. In his Get Some Houseplants episode he uncovers the latest research to prove that plants improve productivity, boost memory and mood (as discussed in our blog on biophilic design) but can even reduce indoor pollution.
Indoor air pollution can be a real problem both in the workplace and in our own homes. You’re probably aware that it can be harmful to breathe in polluted air when you’re outside but the same can be true when we’re indoors, where we spend 90% of our time. Indoor air pollution can be caused by heating and cooking at home, building materials and the chemicals we use for cleaning and decorating. The gases that are emitted into the air from these products or processes are called Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and have been linked in a report from the Royal College of Physicians in 2021 to a range of health problems including asthma, wheezing, conjunctivitis, dermatitis and eczema.
As well as VOCs we are also inhaling a huge amount of carbon dioxide which we produce when we breathe out. In poorly ventilated rooms, higher concentrations of carbon dioxide can impair thinking and decision making as well as giving us headaches and making us feel lightheaded. In their 1989 Clean Air Study NASA researched ways to clean air in space stations and discovered that in addition to absorbing carbon monoxide and releasing oxygen plants also provide a natural way of removing these VOCs. It’s worth noting that NASA’s tests were carried in small, sealed chambers similar to spacecrafts rather than a domestic setting. However, in 2006 when researchers in Australia introduced potted plants to 60 offices with high levels of VOCs, the levels fell by between 50 and 75%. Plants clearly have the power to get rid of these unpleasant gases.
Our potted friends can even improve humidity in the home and workplace helping to solve the skin and eye issues that dry air can cause. But how do they remove all these nasty compounds? Dr Tijana Blanusa from the University of Reading and a principal scientist for the Royal Horticultural Society explains that they have three main mechanisms, one being through the stomata pathways – the little pores on the underside of the leaves which let gases in and the water vapour out to make air more humid. Another pathway is diffusion through surface of the leaves and thirdly through microbiological activity in soil, where microorganisms break down compounds that are taken into the soil.
To make a measurable difference in air quality you would need five or six potted plants in a small room. Dr Tijana Blanusa recommends fast growing, thirsty plants that are physiologically active, plants such as the peace lily and Devil’s ivy. Succulents may well be easy to look after but physiologically they do very little in terms of gas exchange. She adds that these physiologically active plants will perform better with more light. With so many of us returning to the office following the pandemic this research is certainly a strong argument for introducing plants into our workspaces to effortlessly improve our air quality alongside our mood, wellbeing and productivity. Bright Green have the knowledge and expertise to green up your office with plants that will look fantastic but most importantly thrive in your space, purifying your air for many years to come.