Dr's Casebook: Houseplants can improve the quality of the air we breathe

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I have always had plants in my consulting room and in my study at home.

Dr Keith Souter writes: I like to have them because they brighten up the spaces and I find the greenery quite relaxing. I also like the fact that during the day their leaves are photosynthesising to produce glucose. To do this they take in carbon dioxide, absorb sunlight and release oxygen. They improve the quality of the air I breathe.

Recent research just published by the University of Birmingham in partnership with the Royal Horticultural Society indicates that they do more than this to improve air quality.

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They have shown that ordinary potted house plants can significantly reduce air pollution in both the home and the office. Specifically, they used nitrogen dioxide levels as a marker of air pollution and they found that houseplants significantly reduced the levels.

The spider plant is one of the most effective at removing pollutants from the air. Photo: AdobeThe spider plant is one of the most effective at removing pollutants from the air. Photo: Adobe
The spider plant is one of the most effective at removing pollutants from the air. Photo: Adobe

They conducted a series of experiments with three houseplants commonly found in UK homes. These were peace lily, corn plant and fern arum.

Each plant was put on its own in a test chamber containing levels of nitrogen dioxide comparable to an office situated next to a busy road.

They found that over an hour all of these plants were able to reduce 50 per cent of the nitrogen dioxide gas in the chamber. This was independent of time of the day or night or the moistness of the soil.

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They calculated that in a small office, perhaps about the size of a sitting room five houseplants could reduce the pollutant nitrogen dioxide by 20 per cent.

Past research from no less a body than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA previously demonstrated that houseplants can remove formaldehyde, a pollutant released into the air from tissues, carpets and furniture, as well as many chemicals including benzene, which is a pollutant from car exhausts and cigarette smoke. They found that the most effective plants were spider plants, chrysanthemums, rubber plants and palms.

Medical research from Norway studied the effects of houseplants in offices over a year. They found that when staff had houseplants in their offices there was 30 per cent reduction in complaints of tiredness, coughing, sore throats and respiratory illnesses.

All good reasons to strategically place some houseplants around your home and office.