Houseplants to fight toxins

 Marketplace 010 Images Horticulture Stuff like tricloroethylene, formaldehyde, and benzene can be really toxic. Yet they're commonly found right in your house. Fortunately, adding some common houseplants to your surroundings can apparently help clean up the toxins. Our friends at GOOD Magazine posted a useful charticle showing where the compounds tend to rear their ugly heads and the common plants that can act as, er, toxic avengers.


  1. One small drawback: Houseplants are also biological sinks in the home and can be hosts for troublesome and often equally obnoxious fungi and molds.

  2. sweet potting soil, regular mistings/leaf wipings ,proper sun and appropriate species choice for situation should obliviate any mycological concerns

  3. I’m currently dealing with the problem of solvents in the paint of our new home and talked to some environmental experts on this topic as well as investigated on my own. Result: The effect plants have on the concentration of these compounds in your room air are negligible, if there is any at all.

  4. Also, I can’t leave a comment on the site, but they suggest Azalea to counteract the toxins from foam insulation, but Azalea itself is poisonous, and a danger to pets and small children.

  5. A lot of the info for that article came from a book by BC Wolverton called How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants that Purify Your Home or Office, which was based on research done at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. One of the nice things discovered in the research is that many of the plants studied didn’t just filter out environmental toxins, they also suppressed harmful bacteria and spores.

  6. I worked in a lab next to guys researching living walls (using a wall of plants to clean the air). They had some interesting stories about this. The first was the idea that spider plants removed formaldehyde. The original experiments were done with crop plants but since they had room for one more control they grabbed the lab spider plant and measured how much formaldehyde each plant would remove. The spiderplant won and afterwards gained the reputation as being a good house plant for cleaning the air in a home. It was hardly an exhaustive study.

    The second point was the grad students in the lab always (semi)jokingly said how disappointed they were about the plants in the living wall. The plants were mainly there for decoration because it was the bacteria in the soil that were doing all the biochemical work of turning over the toxins. But they said at least the plant wall looked a lot prettier because who wants a living bacteria wall in their home?

  7. NY Times article about this:

    To purify indoor air, he added, plants have to be grouped in a planter that draws air through a filter of clay and activated carbon, and the beneficial micro-organisms around the roots have to feast continually on pollutants.

    The plants are the important part, and the effect just HAPPENS to need the air filtered through “clay and activated carbon”. Riiiight.

  8. I remember reading a while back that though it is true that spider plants remove formaldehyde from the air, they actually caused materials to outgass more.

  9. Shoot. From the title I was hoping for some pointers on how to detoxify oneself from solvents and heavy metals. I have pretty severe reactions to anything with benzene in it.

  10. If only the writers cared as much about their work as the graphic designers.

    -It’s Dracaena deremensis ‘Janet Craig.’ Jenny Craig is the diet program.
    -It’s “pothos.” “Pathos” is the rhetorical term.
    -The photo for Philodendron hederaceum (#11) is upside down.

    I wrote a post for my blog a while back about the overselling of houseplants as air oxygenators and purifiers. The upshot: it’s not quite junk science, but it’s damn close. Link.

  11. The thing that really confuses me about this is the layout. It’s all about the graphic design, at the expense of any real information. The linked website contains nothing additional.
    The caption says that the graphic shows “three commonly found toxins, and the plant species that mollify their effects.” Now, the diagram is color-coded into three sections, one for each of the three chemicals (trichloroethylene, formaldahyde, and benzene), with each broken down into various sources of that chemical toxin, each accompanied by a plant that negates it. Different sources correspond to different plants.
    This leaves me wondering a number of things. Is the height of the source on the diagram meant to convey how much of that compound it gives off, or is the placement arbitrary? Are the plants that correspond to the objects chosen by the amount of that compound that they absorb, or again, is it arbitrary? Why, if water repellent gives off formaldehyde, is it on the stalk of the diagrammatical “plant” that contains the Benzene sources?

    I took a look at the website of Wolverton Environmental, one of the cited sources of the diagram, to see what I could discover. That site is also somewhat lacking. It seems that you must purchase one of the Wolvertons’ books to learn about the benefit of plants. I turned to the primary source of information provided, the FAQ. It said nothing about the correspondence between type of plant and type of chemical removed from the air, but there was one useful section, under the question heading “3. How do I determine how many plants I need?”
    That section included the following statements:

    The amount of leaf surface area influences the rate of air purification by plants. Generally, the larger the plant leaf surface area, the higher the transpiration rate and the greater the surface area to absorb airborne chemicals.
    The basis for recommending the number of plants per room is based upon the average amount of air pollution found in public buildings that were tested by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). […]
    Go to the table below and estimate the number of plants required to remove this amount of formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is the predominant chemical found in the test buildings. Therefore, if sufficient numbers of plants are added to remove formaldehyde, other chemicals should also be removed.

    Now this, to me, makes the GOOD diagram even more confusing. Why would different chemicals require different plants if a sufficient number of plants should remove the other chemicals as well? (I’m ignoring the weird misuse of “therefore.”)
    Now here are the plants that appear on the chart which followed that can also be seen on the diagram, with their listed “removal rate (micrograms/hour):” Bamboo Palm (1350), Janet Craig (1328), English Ivy (1120), and Peace Lily (939). With those numbers in mind, a glance at the diagram shows that a simple bottom-to-top or top-to-bottom reading doesn’t correspond to rate of efficacy. The separation into the three “stalks” muddies things somewhat. Does the Bamboo Palm, matched on the chart to formaldehyde from furniture, not absorb more of the benzene from tobacco smoke although it would absorb more formaldehyde? The diagram just leaves you to guess. Nor is the Boston Fern, rated highest on the chart at the FAQ at 1863, included on the diagram. Are none of the toxin sources potent enough to warrant the use of the botanical big guns? For that matter, couldn’t I just buy a bunch of Boston Ferns and do away with the Chrysanthemums, Poinsettias, and Azaleas entirely?

    Whether this is junk science or not, the diagram is more or less useless without some accompanying article.

  12. One of my fellow grad students is trying to study the negative effect indoor plants have on air quality and was surprised at how little research has been done on it.

    Though, as an LA in training I can tell you that nature has positive psychological effects. When I’m not at work I’ll dig out some studies on it. I wonder how much has been done on indoor landscapes? (Because that kind of statement without anything backing it up is mostly just annoying).

  13. okok, I see them. I just see the word thrown around a lot, and have been curious what they refer to. I assume these toxins are different than the ones in your body that you cleanse through various massage and acupuncture techniques

  14. “okok, I see them. I just see the word thrown around a lot, and have been curious what they refer to. I assume these toxins are different than the ones in your body that you cleanse through various massage and acupuncture techniques”

    No, I’m quite sure they’re talking about the same toxins. The green paper toxins that are found in your wallet. Those are the standard alt-medicine toxins.

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