The ABC of Air Purifying Plants


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The plants have proven psychological and physiological benefits on our health. They are a cost effective option for maintaining good oxygen levels indoors and also effectively filter the toxic chemicals that surround us in closed spaces. They are a win win to combat Indoor Air Pollution.  All the plants give oxygen but that doesn’t qualify them for air purification. Rolling Nature Co-Founder & Botanist Vandana Chaudhary who holds a wealth of knowledge about plants clears the air on some important questions. Read till the end as she mentions few eyeopeners.

What do we mean by air purification by plants?

When we say air purification by plants it generally refers to Phytoremediation. Phytoremediation by plants can be in soil, air, or water to remove elemental pollutants.  For indoor plants, it’s the process which helps indoor air to be purified. It includes mainly four steps:

  1. Accumulation of contaminants on leaf surfaces.
  2. Metabolization of those toxic molecules in leaf tissues.
  3. Degradation of the pollutants through microbes in roots
  4. Immobilization of pollutants in the soil.

So as you can see the process is different, it’s taking up the complex pollutants from air in the leaf and breaking them down through plant roots in soil. So when we say a plant is purifying the air or an air purifying plant, it straightaway uses phytoremediation. 

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How do we know which plant is an air purifier?

Here, being a botanist I only rely on conducted scientific research. These lists out a number of plant species which are effective in mitigating environmental toxins in air. I specifically will talk about indoor plants which purify pollution indoors. Many plant species have tremendous capability to remove pollutants and render them harmless. These plants are a great choice for filtering the air inside homes or offices. They avert “Sick Building Syndrome”. There is a NASA Clean Air Study which lists plant species in order of efficacy of removal of chemicals from indoor spaces. NASA Clean Air Study used phytoremediation and so did many of the researches that provide plants list as air purifiers. 

What exactly is the takeaway from NASA Clean Air Study?

As I have mentioned, NASA Clean Air Study lists several plant species details which remove air toxins. It points out the harmful pollutants that we generally find indoors. It marks each organic compound which each plant can fix.

NASA scientists identified 107 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) focusing mainly on formaldehyde, benzene, toluene and trichloroethylene, all known irritants and potential carcinogens.  Carbon monoxide also is very harmful. In closed spaces the inhabitants may become ill, as the air they breathe is not fresh and constantly replenished or purified. The study showed how having indoor plants could change that. NASA Clean Air Study also recommends 15-18 in an area of approximately 1800 per square feet. So having a number of plants will make a difference, also the leaf surface and size of the plant, accumulation of particulate matter or compounds on leaves in indoor plants matters.

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Is there any more research on air purifying plants?

Absolutely there is! NASA continued its research in this field on several parameters. Its role is integral. There have been further researches on plant species & benefits of indoor plants throughout the world. NASA and other Universities around the world have published papers and journals. It’s always good to have a plant backed by research when you are concerned with indoor air quality. Since the last three decades people’s lifestyle has considerably changed especially in urban areas. There is a 2001 research from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which says that we spend 90% of our life span indoors. Corona times have impacted us more than ever. At Rolling Nature we study and focus on science, mostly if we mention any plant as an air purifier there has been comprehensive research about it. I ensure that we never mislead our customers on information and we work on that very sincerely. We rely on authentic and reputed resources. For example we never mentioned Zamia as Air Purifier until we came across a study released by the Department of Plant and Environmental Science from the University of Copenhagen. They found that the ZZ plant was capable of removing significant amounts of xylene, toluene, benzene and ethylbenzene from the air in 2014. 

Are the oxygen plants or air purifying plants the same?

Generally people with a lesser science background will get confused with oxygen plants. I have constantly been explaining this to our clients.  Oxygen plants is a term that does not necessarily mean air purifying. It’s a term which has been used for plant sales.

A basic thing to understand is that mostly all plants and trees that grow on land undergo photosynthesis and they release oxygen in air in layman’s language. Yes, the amount of oxygen emittance depends on several factors such as which species it is, size, leaf surface etc. Some species emit very high oxygen levels. Saying that these plants will also release quite an amount of Carbon Dioxide without sunlight. But definitely air purifying plants and oxygen plants are not one and the same thing.  If you are looking for an oxygen plant, check the plant species and the research associated with it regarding the high oxygen release in that plant or tree.

During Corona crisis, I saw people posting on how to grow your own oxygen at home, when India was struggling with medical oxygen supplies. Growing plants at home will boost oxygen levels around and create a way to good health. But you cannot tap medical oxygen from plants and fulfill the oxygen supplies technically. These trends have good intentions but they lack direction. People should be very careful about such delicate matters. We always recommend greenery indoors and outdoors and yes it has oodles of advantage in urban setup where spaces are shrinking and there are lesser dedicated green areas.

Any more inputs?

One of the most important aspects of plants is missed out by many. People mostly go wrong when it comes to plant names and their significance.  A plant has a common name and a scientific name. Scientific names combine the genus and the species. Thereafter it can have hybrids or varieties. I would suggest always looking for scientific names is the best bet. Take reference from the common name and search for an image. Or take an image of the plant and search it in google image or consult a plant experts or horticulturist or a botanist if you know any. A gardening enthusiast may also be of help. Don’t go by the common search/sales pages that appear they may have misleading information. Always rely on botanic gardens websites or plant identification websites.

I have visited several local nurseries. They sometimes lack proper knowledge of plants including naming of plants, the soil mixture and care.  There are chances that you will bring something else to your home and also you will not be able to care for it unless you have a green thumb. At Rolling Nature we just don’t sell our products, we are always helpful for any plant queries. We want people to care for whatever they have for the love of plants. We target that the plants stay healthy even if they are not bought from us.  I get a lot of queries with pictures, where mostly customers check and confirm with me the plant they brought from nearby. I sometimes get surprised by what they were told. For example the famous Jade plant, if we consider these two succulent species Asian Jade Plant - Portulacra Afra and Crassula Ovata. So as per Feng Shui they are renowned lucky plants. But I have not seen any research papers that mention them as Air Purifying. Yes, it’s not proven that they remove pollutants. However, there’s this species Crassula Argentea which was proven as an air purifying plant though a study done State University of New York at Oswego in 2016. The internet is flooded with the latter two species of Jade as Air Purifying Plant. However there’s no evidence to support it.

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