It’s common to spend a lot more time indoors in the winter. Given that many Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their life indoors anyway, this can amount to a lot of indoor air inhalation. One potential problem with this situation is exposure to indoor air pollution. Just as there are many outdoor pollutants such as fossil fuels, there are many indoor pollutants as well. Sometimes, components of the pollution that is caused by gas exhaustion can travel inside and become indoor air pollutants. These include benzene and xylene and you’re more likely to have these in your home if you have an attached garage.

There are also many common indoor objects and compounds that can become polluters, such as synthetic building and cleaning products. Rodale’s Organic Life explains that these include:

“household building products and furniture;… glue that holds pressed-wood or particleboard furniture and cabinets together, natural gas stoves, carpet glues, flooring glues, caulks, sealants, paints, furniture finishes, and the water- and stain-repellent finishes applied to upholstery and clothing.”

One of the main concerning chemicals these products release is formaldehyde. Well recognized for its use as an embalming fluid and known as a disturbing ingredient in many cigarettes, formaldehyde causes asthma, allergies, and potentially, cancer. Its use in furniture has been regulated and reduced by the U.S. government but it is, unfortunately, still rather ubiquitous. Trichloroethylene is another indoor air pollutant that is undesirable. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry states that “exposure to trichloroethylene can be harmful,” and explains how in a detailed report. Other possible indoor air pollutants include pollen, bacteria, and mold. Regularly changing your HVAC system’s air filters is a smart basic step to reducing indoor pollutants and irritants. Unfortunately, if you are in a small or unventilated space, all of the pollutants above have less of a chance to be removed by any air filtration system and will have a worsened effect. Greatist shares that,

“living and working in places rife with air contaminants and lacking decent ventilation can cause sick building syndrome, which can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and eye, ear, and nose irritation.”

Luckily for us, a space ship or space station is a rather compact and air-limited space, so NASA set out to figure out how to clean indoor air pollutants from tight spaces. They teamed up with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America to study the positive effects of different houseplants on indoor air pollution.


NASA released a well-known air-filtering plant study and list in 1989, which is still heavily referenced today. They recommend having one plant (at a minimum) for every 110 square feet of living or working space where you are spending your time. While this can take a bit of maintenance and horticultural know-how to carry out, the plants will both clean the air and beautify your rooms. A sampling of the plants they included are: Dwarf Date Palm, Areca Palm, Boston Fern, Kimberly Queen Fern, and English Ivy (more details on several of these air-cleaning plants and others are offered below). Here’s an image from NASA’s space station space garden:


Plants clean the air as they carry out photosynthesis. When they absorb carbon dioxide, they also absorb tiny particles of pollution. They then release oxygen into the indoor environment. Another wonderful trait of indoor houseplants is that the dirt they grow in will also clean the air. Microbes that live in the soil can remove benzene from your building’s atmosphere. Here are six plants that will be a good investment if you aim to reduce the level of indoor air pollutants in your home:

  • English Ivy: While you may have battled English Ivy as this invasive species tried to eat up the outside of your home, yard, and gutters, bring it inside and you will find it serves as a lovely indoor air cleaner. It’s great at absorbing formaldehyde, so consider giving it a decorative structure to grow on and choose a partially sunny spot.
  • Spider Plant: Spider plants love to grow indoors and, as you may have witnessed, they grow quickly and send off shoots of spider plant babies or “spiderettes.” They grow well in bright but indirect light.
  • Boston Fern: These are known to be extremely effective at filtering indoor air of pollutants like formaldehyde and xylene. They do not tolerate being ignored, however and require frequent watering. They will thrive in a highly humid setting, such as a bathroom with a shower or tub that is frequently full of warm steam. I’m a fan of the Boston Ferns because when they are well hydrated, they have a fluffy, Fraggle-head looking appeal:
  • Ficus: A beloved standard in many office spaces, a Ficus plant is reliable and attractive. They require low watering and if well cared for (also in bright, indirect light) they can sometimes grow taller that nine feet. Here’s a lovely Ficus:
  • Rubber Plants: Rubber plants are hardy and thrive in low-light settings, which makes them a great choice for small or dark spaces that need a bit of fresh air.
  • Flowering Indoor Plants: There are a variety of indoor flowering plants that can effectively clean the air. These include the Flamingo Flower, Tulip, and Gerber Daisy. They will need their soil to be checked every few days for over-drying and prefer moderate indoor temperatures. A flamingo flower is pictured below.

So, green-ify your home or workplace this winter (or in any season) and create a more beautiful environment and a cleaner indoor atmosphere.

Julia Travers


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