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The Healing Power of Plants

by Kimberly Rogers, CR, WCMT and NCMT

There have been increasing reports in the news and other media on air quality. During the summer months there are "ozone alerts" warning the elderly and youth not to go outside for any length of time due to high ground levels of ozone that reduce lung capacity, making it hard to breathe. However, regular air quality can also be a problem in the home and office. The EPA ranks indoor air pollution as one of the top five environmental risks to public health, higher than toxic waste sites and the destruction of the ozone layer. Indoor pollutant levels can be two to five times (or more) higher than outdoors. The American Lung Association reports that Americans spend 90 percent of their day indoors. For instance, have you worked in an office setting where one person comes in sick and the next thing you know, the whole office has it? Or walking into a model home where the windows are tightly shut—have you not felt light-headed and queasy after a few minutes? These are some of the signs of 'sick building syndrome.' Symptoms that are associated with this phenomenon are:

  • Allergies
  • Asthma
  • Eye, Nose & Throat Irritations
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nervous-System Disorders
  • Respiratory Congestion
  • Sinus Congestion

What people forget is that newer and remodeled homes and offices are insulated better, hermetically sealed, and that the synthetic furnishings all have chemicals that 'off-gas' over a period of time—sometimes several years! Not only are there alcohols, formaldehyde, benzene, acetone and more in some of these products; the human body also releases substances into the air.

A study done by a team of Russian and American scientists established that besides releasing carbon dioxide, the body also releases carbon monoxide, ammonia, methane, etc. These are called 'bioeffluents.' Insufficient air-exchange, windows that can't be opened, and bioeffluents can lead to a toxic environment. In a 1984 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) believed that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings worldwide would be the subject of complaints on the quality of indoor air.

The consumer market has a host of items to help deal with this, from desk-top and room-size humidifiers and air cleaners to low chemical emission paints and carpet. However, a less costly alternative is to add plants to your home and office environment.

While looking for easy-to-maintain air quality alternatives for the international space station in the late 1980s, NASA did a study on the quality of air in sealed environments using only plants. They were surprised to find that houseplants were efficient at removing toxic chemical fumes and replacing them with breathable air. In the book, How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants That Purify Your Home or Office, Dr. B.C. Wolverton lists and describes the plants that will best improve air quality. Pictures of each plant are displayed, along with care instructions and a chart as to what chemicals each removes. The book includes a section on how to set up your own personal biosphere. Some of the plants you may already have:

  • Palms & Bamboo
  • Rubber Plant
  • Ficus & Ferns
  • Peace Lily & Dumb Cane
  • Golden Pothos & Philodendron
  • Gerbera Daisy & Tulips

This is a small list. You may wish to purchase a second book on the care of houseplants, as Dr. Wolverton does not go into detail as to what plants are poisonous for pets and small children. Dr. Wolverton's book may be found for purchase at amazon.com.

Information and statistics courtesy of How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 Houseplants that Purify Your Home or Office, Dr. B.C. Wolverton, Penguin Books, 1996; indoorairpollution.com; American Lung Association; Environmental Protection Agency; National Education Association Health Information Network; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This article has also appeared in the Natural Sanctuary 2004 March/April newsletter "The Power of Plants."




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