The NASA Space Garden Conducts Human Safety Tests To Evaluate Dangerous Chemicals

The NASA Space Garden begins conducting human safety tests to evaluate dangerous chemicals that may cause illnesses in people using a wide variety of household products.

| August/September 2000

The NASA Space Garden begins human safety tests to evaluate dangerous chemicals we use in our daily life. 

While environmentalists are concerned with the condition of the planet outside your home, some scientists, including those at NASA, are concerned with what's inside your home . . . or space shuttle. In tests sponsored by the space administration and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), formaldehyde was found in everything ranging from cooking fuels and cigarette smoke to furniture wood, while carbon monoxide and benzene were found in gasoline, plastics, rubber, oils, inks and laundry detergent. Both the latter substances have been proven to cause eye irritation, including the formation of cataracts, whereas formaldehyde has been associated with rare forms of cancer.

In response to these suspicions, NASA and the ALCA have commissioned former NASA research scientist Bill Wolverton to study the impact plants may have and conduct human safety tests to evaluate dangerous chemicals, to see if any on indoor environments containing poisonous chemicals. Wolverton's experiments included placing a dozen ornamental plants in sealed Plexiglas chambers and then injecting them with chemicals. Results showed that plants could be very helpful in removing trace levels of toxic vapors through their leaves, roots and soil bacteria.

Says Wolverton — "Philodendron, spider plant and the golden Pathos were labeled the most effective in removing formaldehyde molecules, while gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums were the best in removing benzene." Due to the effectiveness of these tests, NASA has decided to bring along some of these plants on future shuttle missions as part of the developing biological life-support system aboard future space stations.

Even so, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is skeptical, suggesting that biological life in a closed area isn't effective in comparison to good ventilation. Wolverton agrees, noting that "the best you can do to improve the air quality in your house is to combine as many plants as possible with good ventilation." But try telling that to a crew of astronauts who can't necessarily open a window. For them, and for many who don't travel outside the earth's atmosphere, a green thumb could be the difference in a healthy home.

—Eben Carle 

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