Christmas Presents to Clean the Air

Spider plant | How to Improve Indoor Air Quality |

Did you know that the air inside your home could be anything from two to one hundred times more toxic than the air outside?

Your inside air is typically contaminated with a bunch of toxic chemicals including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldeyde (a known caricinogen), phthalates, and brominated fire retardants. If you have a gas stove you may also have nitrogen dioxide in your kitchen, and higher levels of carbon dioxide.

There may be as many as 50-100 different VOCs in your indoor air at any time. They come from furniture (particularly particle board and plywood), paint, bedding, upholstery, conventional cleaning supplies, foam insulation, carpeting, air fresheners, inks, oils and plastics, to name just a few of the common sources. They tend to be emitted at high levels from new materials, but many VOCs continue to be “off-gassed” throughout a product’s life.

Indoor air can also be filled with all the same pollutants from cars and trucks and industrial pollution that are in outdoor air.

Since children breathe 20% more air per kilo of body weight than adults, air quality is even more important for them. According to Linda Cockburn (Living the Good Life) research has found that childhood asthma may be decreased by as much as 65%, just by reducing the level of VOCs indoors.

Happily, there are several things you can do to improve the situation, some of which will be covered in more detail in future articles and many of which make great Christmas presents.  Today I’m focussing on house plants that clean the VOCs from the air.

Indoor plants that clean the air

Most people now know that house plants can help remove some of the pollution from our indoor air, including volatile organic compounds like formaldehyde, benzene and toluene. What you may not know is that it is actually the natural soil bacteria that does the job, rather than the plants themselves. However, you do need a live plant to draw the VOCs into the soil and keep the bacteria working for you, and different plants are better at removing different pollutants.

Plants also help clear the air of carbon dioxide, returning the oxygen for us to breath.

A study run by NASA in the late 1980s looked specifically at how well plants clean the air of benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde.   Later studies have included other VOCs including xylene, toluene and ammonia.

Plants that have been found to be particularly effective at cleaning the air include:

  • Peace lilies (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene,  ammonia) (pictured below)
  • Devil’s ivy/golden pothos (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene, carbon monoxide) – note that this is poisonous if chewed of swallowed by children or pets
  • Mother-in-law’s tongue/variegated snake plant (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene)
  • Chrysanthemum morifolium/florist’s daisy (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene and ammonia)
  • English ivy (benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, toluene)
  • Spider plant (formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, carbon monoxide) (pictured above)
  • Red-edged dracaena/Song of India (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene, toluene)
  • Bamboo palm (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene)
  • Aloe Vera (benzene, formaldehyde)
  • Gerbera Daisy/Barberton daisy (Gerbera jamesonii) (benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene)

You can see from the list that having a variety of plants is a good idea to maximise the effects. It’s also worth noting that there are many VOCS that are not listed here, because the studies of house plants did not measure them. That doesn’t mean plants can’t help clean them from the air, but again, a bit of variety is a good idea.

Many of these plants – like the peace lily and the spider plant – are very easily divided and propagated. So rather than going out to buy a bunch of plants, why not ask a friend if you can take a root division of theirs? Or, divide up one of your own, and re-pot it for an awesome, sustainable Christmas present.

This peace lily could easily be divided into several plants and repotted for sustainable Christmas gifts to clear the air |

How many plants do you need? The advice on this varies, from one per nine square metres (100 square feet) to one per square metre. I asked building biologist Nicole Bijlsma, author of Healthy Home, Healthy Family, why there was such a large discrepancy. She replied that the number required depends on several factors including contaminants, surrounding building materials, ventilation, humidity levels, room size and so on. “However,” she said, “the point is that they are wonderful as part of any building.”

What about mould?

One issue with house plants can be mould allergy. I know my sister has avoided house plants for years since being told they were aggravating her allergies. However, this need not be the case. Of course, plants that are constantly moist will harbor more mould than those which are allowed to dry out. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America though, mould in house plants is mostly only an issue if the soil is disturbed. (source) It is sometimes recommended to cover the soil surface with gravel to reduce mould growth, although this does also reduce the reduction of some VOCs.

Other ways to clean the air

There are a number of other ways to clean your air, from using negative ions to filters. I will cover some of these in more depth in later articles but for starters you can:

  • Vacuum regularly with a HEPA filter to remove the household dust, which typically contains chemical flame retardants, the ubiquitous phthalates and other chemicals, along with your dead skin cells and dust mite deposits.
  • Ventilate. “Open your windows as often as you can,” says Nicole Bijsma. “A healthy home smells like fresh air.” Another option is to have “trickle vents” installed, filtered ventilation that fits in your window (make sure to have two fitted for effective cross ventilation). You can also have a HEPA filter installed in your air conditioner, if you use one.
  • Burn beeswax candles. Not only are they a non-toxic alternative to paraffin candles, but they may actually remove pollutants from the air. The burning beeswax is said to create negative ions in the air, which bond with the positively charged pollutants, causing them to be sucked back into the candle or to fall to the ground (see note above about vacuuming regularly!).
    Beeswax candles are on my Christmas wishlist.  In Australia you can buy gorgeous 100% pure Australian beeswax candles from Queen B. You can also buy a selection of 100% beeswax candles on Fishpond with free shipping Australia wide. Outside Australia you can find 100% pure beeswax candles here.
  • Himalayan salt lamps are also said to release negative ions, and to offset the effects of EMFS.
  • Wet mop regularly, and seal crevices and cracks where dust can collect.

Leave the pollution outside

Of course we can’t get away from pollution completely. One of the reasons I called my recently released book Less Toxic Living, and not Non-toxic Living, is because there is really no such thing as the latter anymore. But we can reduce our exposure.

All the suggestions above will help clean your air. You can also reduce the amount of contaminants that enter your house, by paying attention to what comes in. This is a whole article (or book) on its own, but you can start by

  • avoiding anything that is artificially fragranced or has the word “fragrance” listed in the ingredients, from cleaning and personal care products, air fresheners to scented toys; using only phthalate free plastics (ideally choose plastics labelled #2, #4 or #5, or no plastics at all);
  • allowing dry cleaned clothes to hang outside on the line for a period before bringing them into your home;
  • cleaning with non-toxic DIY options like bicarb soda (baking soda), washing soda and vinegar, or high quality microfibre, and
  • taking off your shoes at the door.

And of course you can download my ebook on living less toxically (for free), or buy the paperback! 😉

This post was shared over at Essentially Jess.

Over to you: Do you have house plants? What else do you do to keep your indoor air clean? 


  15 comments for “Christmas Presents to Clean the Air

  1. December 3, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    We have had a peace lilly in our houses for years. I am so happy we got that right! I am now checking round the house for some things we can change 🙂

    • Kirsten
      December 3, 2013 at 12:53 pm

      Us too Becc! And I recently divided one into three and have another one that probably needs dividing into about five (I guess I should do that more often!), so we’re getting there 🙂

      We actually used to have a lot more houseplants, but putting them up out of reach of little fingers meant also out of mind for watering, and gradually I’m afraid we killed a lot of them off! My kids are old enough to take care of them now though (well, my older kids) so I am thinking of giving them a spider plant each for Christmas – I remember how much I loved how easy they were to propagate when I was a kid.

  2. December 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    I have had peace lillies in the house for years. My 85 year old nan taught me the value of plants inside the house many years ago! Whenever she visits she takes home the plants that are looking a bit dead and replaces them with more lillies and ferns…is a perfect arrangement really! This week I scored three flowering orchids from her for the house. She’s a gem. Visiting from IBOT and so glad to have found you!!!!

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:47 pm

      That’s awesome Megan. I get them sometimes from my parents, who have always had lots of indoor plants, but they don’t take them home and nurture them back up when I have let neglected them. Perhaps I should suggest it 🙂

  3. December 3, 2013 at 10:03 pm

    Very interesting article Kirsten. I only have two plants inside. I’ll be taking notice when I visit people from now on. I want a peace Lilly I’ve decided.

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:48 pm

      Peace lilies are great Linda. Not only do they work so hard for you, but they’re really easy to look after. Even mine haven’t died, and I do not have a great record with indoor plants.

  4. December 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Oh my gosh! I am shocked to read this. I really had no idea at all about how toxic indoors can be. We don’t have any plants at all inside the house and I have to change this. We did have a peace lily inside, but she just wasn’t thriving so we took her outside … Thanks for the really informative post.

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:45 pm

      You’re welcome Renee. It is a bit shocking really, isn’t it?

  5. Penelope
    December 4, 2013 at 11:52 am

    Hi Kirsten,
    Once again you have provided valuable and simple instruction that will benefit the modern human; I’ve been pushing plants in my place of work this year and so far we have 5. I will forward your blog to my work peers to drive the point home.
    Good work!

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:44 pm

      That’s great Penelope, I hope it helps you to get more!

  6. December 6, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    I would love some house plants, but we just don’t have anywhere to put them!
    This makes me giggle a little, because I remember a friend years ago, going on and on about the benefits of house plants in cleaning the air, so she had heaps of them. She was also a heavy smoker. Couldn’t help feeling she was cancelling it all out 🙂

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      Yeah, I guess it would have been helping clean the air for the people around her. A little.

  7. December 7, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Well this is reason enough for me to try more plants. I usually do not have much luck and they die. But I currently have two living indoor plants, and I think I can try some more now. #teamIBOT

    • Kirsten
      December 9, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      That’s great you’ve got two surviving iSophie! I find Peace Lilies are very easy to keep alive – just apply water as soon as they start looking droopy and you’re good to go (and I have let some of mine get *very* droopy on occasion, and they’ve still bounced right back).

  8. May 24, 2015 at 3:00 pm

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