Certain house plants are better than others at removing specific potentially harmful compounds from their environment, according to a new study that suggests homes with such plants likely contain safer, cleaner indoor air.

The study found that the common house plant "Scarlet Star" (Guzmania lingulata) removed more types of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than any other tested plant. The findings will be presented today at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.

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VOCs are compounds that are emitted as gases and that can cause both short and long-term health effects when a person inhales them. Examples include acetone, benzene and formaldehyde that are often released from paint, furniture, copiers, printers, cleaning supplies and dry-cleaned clothes.

Photo: A researcher measure VOCs emitted from furniture in a chamber. Credit: Tracey Nicholls, CSIRO

"Buildings, whether new or old, can have high levels of VOCs in them, sometimes so high that you can smell them," Vadoud Niri, leader of the study and a researcher in the SUNY Oswego Department of Chemistry, said in a press release.

"Inhaling large amounts of VOCs can lead some people to develop sick building syndrome, which reduces productivity and can even cause dizziness, asthma or allergies," he added. "We must do something about VOCs in indoor air."

One solution is to look for products and services that have been formulated with health in mind. For example, some manufacturers now sell "no VOC non-toxic" interior paints. There are also "environmentally friendly" dry cleaners.

Another step to prevent VOC-related problems is to bring plants into your home and office. Nearly all plants can remove volatile chemicals from indoor air in a process known as biofiltration or phytoremediation.

NASA has been studying biofiltration since the early 80s, and discovered that plants can absorb the potentially dangerous chemical compounds via their leaves and roots. Unless the chemical exposure is extreme, the compounds do not kill or do much, if any, damage to the plants.

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Niri and his team took the NASA and other prior research a step further by looking at how well particular plants in a sealed chamber removed specific types of VOCs. Five common house plants were selected for the study. In addition to Scarlet Star they included Crassula argentea (jade plant), Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant), Consolea falcata (Caribbean tree cactus), and Dracaena fragrans (dracaena).

With high tech VOC-monitoring equipment, the scientists looked at how well each plant removed the potentially dangerous airborne compounds, and how long it took the plants to do so.

Scarlet Star lived up to its name, as it was rock star at taking in VOCs. It removed more than 80% of the eight gases included in the study over just a twelve-hour period.

Each plant seemed to have a specialty, though, removing more of a particular VOC than the others. For example, the dracaena removed an incredible 94% of all acetone in the air. This pungent chemical is abundant at nail salons. All plants absorbed acetone to some degree, but not at the level that the dracaena did.

Photo: Dracaena plant starting to bloom. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

"Based on our results, we can recommend what plants are good for certain types of VOCs and for specific locations," Niri said. "To illustrate, the bromeliad plant was very good at removing six out of eight studied VOCs -- it was able to take up more than 80 percent of each of those compounds -- over the twelve-hour sampling period. So it could be a good plant to have sitting around in the household or workplace."

Niri hopes to test the plants in real life settings next, such as in actual homes. He also hopes to put a bunch of plants in a nail salon over the course of several months to see if their presence helps to reduce the workers' acetone exposure.

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