Photos by Lorena Galliot
If you thought the best way to keep polluted air out was to close the window, think twice.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
indoor air contains levels of pollutants between 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor air, because of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that emanate from virtually all household products. Given that city-dwellers spend an estimated 90% of their time indoors, improving the quality of air within homes and offices is a key public health issue.
Luckily, nature provides us with a simple, attractive and sustainable solution: plants. Research stretching as far back as a NASA research program in the late 80s shows that over 50 different kinds of indoor plants absorb significant amounts of VOCs, thus improving the air quality of the rooms they are in.
I learned all about this recently in a rather pleasant way, while strolling in Paris’ trendy Marais neighbourhood on a sunny afternoon. A sudden glimpse of luxuriant, exotic-looking leaves, flowers and bushels behind an olive-green façade lured me into « Green Factory », a lovely shop specialised in air-purifying plants. Yoël, the owner, was kind enough to answer all my questions about how plants affect the air we breath in.
Q: Where do VOCs come from and why are they bad for our health?
A: Common organic chemicals such as formaldehyde or xlyene are widely used as ingredients in all sorts of objects that surround us every day, namely furniture (especially in the plywoods and glues used in cheaper items), paints and wallpaper, detergents, permanent markers, copier and printer ink in offices, cigarette smoke…I could go on and on.
All these products can create or worsen allergies and asthma, cause nausea, headaches and itchy eyes, nose and throat. Even worse, high levels ofVOC exposure has been linked to kidney failure and certain cancers.
Q: How do indoor plants help?
A : In the same way that forest trees will absorb CO2 and emit oxygen, certain types of indoor plants absorb the chemicals in polluted air and metabolize them, purifying the air around them. Basically, the pollution doesn’t disappear, it’s stocked in the plant’s leaves, branches and roots – where it’s harmless for humans. More than 50 different plants have been tested and scientifically proven to purify the air around them – and there could potentially be a lot more which have not been tested.
A single indoor plant won’t purify the air in an entire room, but it will affect a perimeter of approx 2 to 5 square meters around it. That’s why it’s good to keep plants near a desk, couch, kitchen table or counter – any place we tend to sit and spend time. There’s a common misconception that it’s not healthy to put plants in bedrooms. This is nonsense. Keeping a plant near your bed is a simple, natural way to make sure the air you breath in at night is cleaner.
Q: Could you describe a few of your favorite air-purifying plants ?
My personal favourite is the Sansevieria, also nicknamed « langue de belle mère » (mother-in-law’s tongue) because it’s such an easy going plant and it absorbs nearly every chemical particle it crosses and produces lots of oxygen during the night. It thrives in the sun, in the shade, indoors, outdoors – it can go without watering for a month. It’s the perfect plant for distracted bachelors and over-worked city people.
Other popular air-purifying plants are the peace lily (pictured above), which is good at absorbing the xlylene in detergents, so is particularly useful in a kitchen or bathroom, and these small banana trees (called musas), which covers a wide spectre of VOCs. The musa needs special care, though, a lot of light, warmth and watering. Finally, I’d say an aloe vera should be a must have in all homes : not only does it purify the air, but you can put its sap on a cut or insect bite to sooth it, and even make aloe energy drinks (I mix it with mint, lime, water and brown sugar).
Q: You’re visibly passionate about this. What made you want to start an air-puryfiying plant business?
I guess it combines my passion for gardening and concern for ecology and public health issues. I’ve always loved plants and loved taking care of them, I trained as a landscape gardener. My goal is to bring together esthetics and ecology thanks to the natural beauty of plants. I help each customer pick out the right plant for him or her according to his/her needs, taste and living environment, as well as the plant’s needs. The plants I sell are grown to last.
I’ve never understood why people are concerned about their health and the environment (they’ll eat healthy, maybe organic food, work out, save energy, recycle, etc) but spare so little thought for the air they breath. If there’s one thing we all do, all the time, until the day we die (literally), it’s breath.
20, rue du Pont aux Choux,
Tél. : 01 42 74 37 72.