Do houseplants really improve the air quality in your home?
Not only do houseplants add freshness and style to your home, they can also help you breathe easier.
Houseplants look good, create ambiance and give you something to care for, which experts say boosts your mental outlook.
“Plants can be our emotional support the same way people have an emotional support pet or animal," Maryah Greene, plant doctor and founder of Greene Piece, told AccuWeather. "From what I’ve seen with clients, sometimes it’s a connection with a loved one who’s passed away and they’ve left a plant for you that was very meaningful to them at one point in time or it’s just a reminder."
But what about your physical health? Do plants actually improve the air quality in your home?
“The fact of the matter is that all plants help with air filtering because of the normal photosynthesis process where they take in sunlight and carbon dioxide and they let out oxygen," Ryan Lee, founder of Rooted NYC, said.
His company ships plants from its nursery to anywhere in the United States. The website offers handy filtering features including desired size of the plant and lighting of your space in order to help you find the right plant to fit your home and lifestyle, then the company delivers an ideal plant to your front door. The company is currently touting its "Breath-of-Fresh-Air Mystery Box."
Brooklyn-based Rooted NYC is staying busy shipping plants across the United States during the pandemic. (Rooted NYC)
So just how much fresh air do plants offer humans? Lee told AccuWeather that plants are constantly working to improve air quality. “They have respiratory systems, right? So this is happening 24 hours a day," he said. "All plants will do that."
Plants, some more effectively than others, remove airborne pollutants that can cause a variety of health problems such as itchy throats and even more serious illnesses such as cancer. “There’s things like xylene, benzine, formaldehyde, and these are all airborne small particles that are surrounding us because of things like -- common things -- like vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke and household cleaners and rubber or leather products, and so we don’t actively see these things. But the plants -- they do take care of it by harnessing those toxins and releasing out pure oxygen,” Lee said.
The toxins in the air are called "volatile organic compounds" or VOCs. VOCs can't be filtered like other types of air pollution such as soot or particulate matter. This became a problem for NASA because the toxins could build up in sealed environments like spacecraft or laboratories. In the late 1980s, NASA scientists set out to study whether house plants could absorb VOCs.
The agency released a report on its findings in 1989 and, as NASA noted in a summary of the results, the discovery was promising. "We understand that humankind’s existence relies on its complex relationship with this planet’s environment -- in particular, the regenerative qualities of Earth’s ecosystems ... If man is to move into closed environments, on Earth or in space, he must take along nature's life support system," the report read.
Homes are not hermetically sealed chambers, however. They have doors and windows, which create air drafts. For plants to marginally improve the air quality in your home, even in a small apartment, you would need a lot more houseplants than the average person is typically willing to care for, according to several scientists who talked to The Atlantic for an article titled "A Popular Benefit of Houseplants Is a Myth."
"For you to feel a measurable difference, you’d need a lot of plants ... Not just one that’s going to be sitting on your counter,” Lee told AccuWeather. Additionally, the type of plant also makes a big difference. "A leafy, broad-leafed tropical plant like a pothos in the wild will do that a lot more effectively than a cactus could.”
Pothos plants earned high marks in a NASA study on whether plants can filter harmful chemicals from the air. (Getty Images)
That said, plant lovers say they can tell a difference. Hilton Carter, plant stylist and author of “Wild at Home: How to Style and Care for Beautiful Plants,” told The Atlantic he keeps nearly 200 plants in his 950-square-foot Baltimore apartment. “You can feel the difference in a space that’s filled with plants as opposed to a space that isn’t,” he said. “Right now, my home feels a bit more humid than it would without those plants in there.”
Maryah Greene, founder of Greene Piece. (Photo / Alex Bandoni)
Negligible air quality improvement or no, it’s difficult to understate the benefits of bringing nature indoors, especially during the uncertain time of the current shelter-in-place and pandemic. "A lot of us lead these digital lives and it’s very easy to get caught up in the swing of things. My cofounder Kay (Kim) and I come from backgrounds where we spent all of our time outdoors and we know how soothing it can be and how mentally stimulating and creative it can make you,” Lee said.
Greene wholeheartedly agrees. “It’s just a really nice way to be in touch with yourself and any living thing that you’re caring for, it’s the same reason we all have pets," she said.
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