Healthy, Green Design: Improve Indoor Air Quality with Plants

Reader Contribution by Stephanie Nickolson
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Stephanie Nickolson has designed residential, commercial and eco-conscious environments for more than 24 years. Her firm, Stephanie Nickolson Design, promotes the use of sustainable, non-toxic, recyclable and environmentally-friendly products and services. The firm works largely with clients who have allergies, chemical sensitivies or who have children with special needs.

Have you ever walked into a store, restaurant or other environment and couldn’t stand the heavily scented aroma that someone used to try and cover up another (worse) scent? Well, I have. It’s one of my favorite stores that I frequent and whenever I enter the washroom, I cannot wait to get out of there as the air is so heavily perfumed it makes me feel ill. This is not an effective remedy, nor is it healthy. Anything that exudes that much fragrance is certainly loaded with phthalates. Most commercial air fresheners mask odors but do nothing to remediate them.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air can be five times worse than outdoor air. The typical American breathes indoor air about 90 percent of their typical day. The quality of the air we breathe is a cause for major health concerns in America.

There are six elements that determine indoor air quality:

1. Airborne particles: Mold, pollen, dust and dander
2. Carbon monoxide: Released when wood, gasoline, oil, kerosene, natural gas and charcoal burn inefficiently.
3. Temperature: Extreme changes in temperature can trigger and aggravate asthma and other respiratory problems.
4. Volatile organic compounds: Fragrances, new paint, carpet and furniture
5. Humidity: High relative humidity (higher than 45 percent) can lead to mold, mildew, bacteria and fungi growth and dust mites.
6. Carbon dioxide: This is released when people exhale and from the burning of wood, gasoline, oil, kerosene, natural gas and charcoal. A high carbon dioxide level can be a result of poor ventilation. This can also make your home feel “stuffy.”

Unfortunately, not all indoor air purifiers are considered safe. Too much ozone released into the air we breathe is not a good thing. The EPA has a certification board in California called the ARB (Air Resources Board) which has adopted a regulation to limit ozone emissions from these products. As of October 18 of this year, these air purifiers must produce emissions less than 0.050 ppm (parts per million). To better comprehend this, 1 ppm is one drop in 15 gallons of water. (Check out this website to see a listing of units that are not considered safe.)

Why is ozone harmful to us? Ozone high up in the air protects us from the harmful rays of the sun, but down below, at our level, it can cause harm to our respiratory systems.

Peace lilies will clean your indoor air while providing a piece of beautiful decor. Photo By mendhak/Courtesy Flickr.

A wonderful, less technical way to clean your air in your home or office is to bring in certain types of plants which naturally clean the air. A partial list of these include:

Boston fern
English ivy
peace lily (as shown above)
weeping  fig
reed  palm           

My favorite is the peace lily. The white flowers bloom periodically and make fabulous gifts!

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