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New Research Busts Myth That Indoor Plants Improve Air Quality

Last updated: 11-17-2019

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New Research Busts Myth That Indoor Plants Improve Air Quality

After a 1989 study demonstrated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) decayed in a sealed chamber with a potted plant, everyone raved about how plants improved indoor air quality. Even NASA declared indoor plants could remove cancer-causing compounds from the air.

Turns out, just having a well-ventilated workspace does much more for your lungs than the potted plants do.

According to Dr. Michael Waring, associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel University, "this has been a common misconception for some time. Plants are great, but they don't actually clean indoor air quickly enough to have an effect on the air quality of your home or office environment.”

Dr. Waring, along with his graduate student Bryan Cummings, analyzed 12 previously-published studies in a meta-analysis where they standardized air flow. They found ventilation in indoor environments dilutes the VOCs a lot faster than the plants can remove them from the air.

Previous studies experimented with sealed chambers in labs, which don’t mimic air flow through indoor environments provided by HVAC systems or natural ventilation from open windows. VOCs were injected into the sealed chambers which contained a plant, and tracked over hours to days. The researchers were able to capture the decay of VOCs due to the plant, but this rate is incredibly slow compared to physical removal through ventilation, as Dr. Waring and Cummings demonstrated.

Don’t toss your potted plants yet—there are still incredible benefits to bringing a bit of nature indoors. Research shows potted plants can help us manage pain, lower blood pressure in those recovering from surgery, improve our capacity to pay attention in the office, calm young adults between work tasks, and more.

After a 1989 study demonstrated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) decayed in a sealed chamber with a potted plant, everyone raved about how plants improved indoor air quality. Even NASA declared indoor plants could remove cancer-causing compounds from the air.

Turns out, just having a well-ventilated workspace does much more for your lungs than the potted plants do.

According to Dr. Michael Waring, associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering at Drexel University, "this has been a common misconception for some time. Plants are great, but they don't actually clean indoor air quickly enough to have an effect on the air quality of your home or office environment.”

Dr. Waring, along with his graduate student Bryan Cummings, analyzed 12 previously-published studies in a meta-analysis where they standardized air flow. They found ventilation in indoor environments dilutes the VOCs a lot faster than the plants can remove them from the air.

Previous studies experimented with sealed chambers in labs, which don’t mimic air flow through indoor environments provided by HVAC systems or natural ventilation from open windows. VOCs were injected into the sealed chambers which contained a plant, and tracked over hours to days. The researchers were able to capture the decay of VOCs due to the plant, but this rate is incredibly slow compared to physical removal through ventilation, as Dr. Waring and Cummings demonstrated.

Don’t toss your potted plants yet—there are still incredible benefits to bringing a bit of nature indoors. Research shows potted plants can help us manage pain, lower blood pressure in those recovering from surgery, improve our capacity to pay attention in the office, calm young adults between work tasks, and more.


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