Three Cheers for Houseplants
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I'm speaking of houseplants, those African violets and ferns that grace our living rooms and desks without so much as a peep.
Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for plants, though. Take Jerry Seinfeld, for example. After reading the following comment about houseplants, you'll wonder if he even allows plastic ferns on the set while taping the show.
Now in case you're thinking you don't have to worry about indoor air pollution because you don't smell anything bad, read on.
We breathe about 20 times per minute, more than 10 million times per year, which adds up to about 700 million breaths in a lifetime. That's a lot of inhaling and exhaling and each breath reminds us how important clean air is to our overall health. Most of us don't give indoor air pollution a second thought since there's so much emphasis on the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect, acid rain and so on.
But we should think about it more often, especially since the average person spends 90 percent of his or her time indoors.
Plants to the rescue
Have you every walked into a new house or office building and was almost knocked over by the strong odors? You weren't imaging it. In 1984, a World Health Organization report suggested that 1 out of 3 new and remodeled buildings may have poor indoor air quality -- enough to cause headaches, eye, nose, or throat irritations, dry coughs, dry or itchy skin; dizziness and nausea. They even gave this situation a name: Sick Building Syndrome.
About the same time, NASA scientists were studying ways to combat indoor air pollution. Recent studies have proven that oxygen boosts the brain's performance. You know how lethargic and mentally foggy you feel after riding in a plane with poor air circulation for four hours? A breath of fresh air does the trick. But astronauts can't just step outside for some fresh air. Fortunately, the 2-year study discovered a practical, pollution-absorbing device: the everyday houseplant.
The plants used in the study absorbed contaminants from the air so efficiently, even the scientists were surprised. Soon, plans were made to launch plants into space. Scientists wanted to see how they'd perform as part of the life support system aboard orbiting space stations. Imagine, a rubber plant in a space suit...
Plants as air conditioners
Plants take substances out of the air through their stoma, the tiny opening in their leaves. Recent studies have shown that plants not only breathe through their leaves, but roots and soil bacteria also remove trace levels of toxic vapors. In goes the bad air, out goes the good.
So, what kind of toxic vapors are we talking about? And are they limited to just new buildings? Besides the obvious culprits like cigarette smoke, and diesel and propane fumes, invisible and odorless compounds leak from counter tops, furniture--even the chair you are sitting in.
Let's start with formaldehyde. Some of you might remember formaldehyde from your high school science classes as the smelly substance used to pickle specimens for dissection. This chemical is found in virtually all indoor environments. The nastier form is called urea- formaldehyde, or UF. It is found in foam insulation, particle board and pressed wood products used in desks, tables, shelves and other office furniture.
Formaldehyde is also used in making paper bags, waxed papers, facial tissues and paper towels. Many of these products are treated with UF resins. This is why unbleached coffee filters, paper napkins and paper towels are finding their way into mainstream retail stores. Consumers are demanding safer, dioxin-free paper products.
Sources of fumes that cause indoor air pollution
The list of guilty products continues. Many common household cleaning agents contain formaldehyde. UF resins are used in wrinkle-free treatments, fire retardants and adhesive binders in floor coverings, carpet backings and permanent-press clothes. Other sources of formaldehyde include natural gas, kerosene and cigarette smoke.
Then there's benzene. Benzene is a common solvent and is present in gasoline, inks, oils, paints, plastics and rubber. It is also used in the manufacturing process of detergents, explosives, pharmaceuticals and dyes.
Last but not least, we have trichloroethylene. Trichloroethylene is a big word that demands we sound it out slowly when trying it on for the first time. TCE is used in the metal degreasing and dry cleaning industries. You'll also find it in printing inks, paints, lacquers, varnishes and adhesives.
A houseplant in every home and office?
Fortunately, there are simple ways to diminish the effects of indoor air pollution. Start by becoming an informed consumer. Read the lables and buy smart. Second, let's get back to those hard working houseplants.
After NASA told the world how well plants vacuum-cleaned the air in our homes and offices, people bought ivy plants, Boston ferns, and spider plants from garden centers, florists and grocery stores. Now, 75 percent of all households have at least one indoor plant. And to think that it wasn't long ago when folks believed indoor plants robbed oxygen from the atmosphere, making it unsafe for human inhabitants.
I starting writing this article as a "houseplant care" article. But it seemed pointless to talk about how to take care of indoor plants, without first explaining why you should bother, or even care.
If you own houseplant, consider yourself fortunate to have such a useful being around. Treat it like a member of the family and spread the good word by giving plants as gifts. The recipient will enjoy its beauty long after the bloom has faded from cut flowers.
And, by all means, take care of your hard-working roommates. Feed them a mild, organic fertilizer during the growing season. Transplant them every two years or so, and pay attention to their water needs. By the way, it's better to err on the dry side. Provide good air circulation, dust them off occasionally, watch for pests, and give them plenty of light. And you might consider treating them to a little Mozart once in a while.
Thanks for visiting and please stop by again. I'll put the coffee on!
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