Harmful chemicals in the home

DID YOU KNOW that coal miners’ canaries were made redundant as recently as 1986? These chirpy creatures were replaced by electronic detectors which are able to warn of harmful gases down in the coal mines. Canaries are excellent indicators of chemicals in the air and their distress alerted coal miners to the presence of harmful gases.

Canary, in coal, mine, chemicals, gas, life, saver, detect The coat miner's canary was a potential life-saving device. They were treated as pets. What’s the connection between cheerful canaries and house plants? If you watched Trust me, I’m a Doctor, on BBC 2 recently, you would know. The programme focused on perfumed products and the associated toxins they produce. Don’t we all just love to use fragranced merchandise –  often loaded with chemicals? Presumably because we associate scent with cleanliness. Toilet, cleaning, chemicals, toxic, formaldehyde, Cleaning the toilet. A harmless activity... or is it? Air fresheners, scented candles and household cleaning sprays and creams – they all seduce with their promise of ‘citrus’, ‘pine’, ‘rose’ or ‘lavender’. But most of these fragrances are artificial. In other words, the scent is a chemical rather than natural. What’s more, once released into the air they can do more harm than good. Fragrances are not necessarily dangerous in their own right, but once they react to the air, some of them can form new chemicals which have the potential to harm. Formaldehyde, chemicals, gases, environment Formaldehyde: are we breathing this in without realising? It seems that modern properties in which we live are partly to blame. They are devoid of draughts. The airflow is slow and houses are ‘air-tight’. So anything released into a home is likely to hang around for ages. This pollution isn’t something you want to breathe in for very long. A team at the University of York recently measured levels of chemicals in homes using an air sampler. This pinpointed the amount and presence of different chemicals. Householders were encouraged to keep diaries to itemise the type of products used. University of York, research, house, plants, gardens, growing Interesting findings from the University of York in relation to house plants. It was discovered that formaldehyde, which forms in the air as a reaction between various chemicals, was highest in the homes using the most fragranced products. This is said to be a carcinogen which, in other words, is a cancer-causing chemical. It can cause respiratory symptoms and respiratory problems. It’s a known fact that some people suffer from ‘sick building syndrome’ whereby they develop medical conditions such as allergies, asthma and headaches. Sick, building, chemicals, toxic, plants, healing Is your building sick?  

Is this another blog post telling you to give up the things you enjoy? NO.

There is a very simple answer to the chemical problem – find space for more house plants! These have amazing powers and are able to absorb chemicals. Studies by NASA show that plants such as Dracaena (Dragon Tree); Scindapsus (Devil’s Ivy); Chlorophytum (Spider plants) and Hedera (Ivy) are all able to reduce levels of formaldehyde – at remarkable speed. Office, house, plants, chemicals, filtering, health, formaldehyde House and office plants are good for you! How do they do this? Plants don’t reduce the levels of fragrance chemicals but they do appear to remove the more dangerous formaldehyde. Their foliage is able to absorb the unwanted gas through tiny holes called stomata. What’s more, plants produce oxygen and clean up the air very effectively. Plants were able to remove up to 80% of the formaldehyde within just four hours! Their roots, together with microorganisms living in the soil, appear to be able to continue the good work at night when the stomata are closed.

Which plants are best?

Firstly, the Peace Lily, Spathiphyllum wallisii. It’s easy to care for, (but if you put it in really low light it might be reluctant to give you flowers). The Peace Lily can effectively remove formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethane, to mention just a few unwanted chemicals. It’s an undemanding plant that has lance-shaped foliage which will grow to a height of about 60cm. Give it some natural light but not direct sunlight and it will reward you with white lily flowers with a bright yellow or white centre. Peace Lily, house plant, houseplant, filtering, air The beautiful Peace Lily is a highly effective filtering system. Next, Sansevieria, otherwise known as Mother-in-Law’s Tongue, is a great all-round house plant that looks very regal with its succulent, sword-like vertical leaves. It can be relied upon to make a permanent feature, unmoved by passing wafts of air and not worried by its environmental conditions. The common name refers to the pointed tips of the leaves – symbolising the sharp tongue of mother-in-law! Sansevieria are efficient at removing several different gases from the atmosphere, including formaldehyde. Unlike your mother-in-law, this is a plant that can thrive on neglect! The only thing it will object to is over-watering. Sansieveria Scindapsus (Devil’s Ivy) is very easy to grow. This foliage house plant has glossy green leaves with yellow splashes. It can be trained up a moss stick and will grow into a beautiful, tall specimen up to 2m tall. Alternatively you can allow this plant to trail. Whatever its shape, it will thrive in almost any position and even hold on to its variegation too. It’s said to be one of the very best air filterers available. Scindapsus, house plant, houseplant, tree, moss stick Beautiful Scindapsus makes a great houseplant - and it filters the air too! Then we have the Dragon Tree, or Dracaena marginata. It is very easy to place in a home, being architecturally beautiful but not requiring much in the way of attention. This attractive plant will eventually want to grow to a height of 2m or more, but it can easily be pruned and will sprout again lower down the stem. It removes formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, xylene and tolune gases from the atmosphere. Dracaena marginata, houseplant, house, plant, chemicals absorb The highly popular Dragon Tree, Dracaena marginata The Areca palm, Dypsis lutescens, is an entirely different type of house plant, and this makes a great focal point in a home or office. Place it near your printer for maximum effect as it can remove various emissions from the air including electro-static charge from electrical equipment. The palm tree will eventually want to grow to a height of about 3m but it is easy to care for and you can limit the growth by keeping it in a restricted pot. Its fronds will gently waft in the air as you walk past, giving off a calm, pleasant aura. Areca palm, house, plant, houseplant The Areca palm The weeping fig, Ficus benjamina, is another beauty that deserves a spot within a home or office. Its foliage wavers in the air like raindrops and these plants are often available in bonsai forms as well as tall plants reaching 2.5m. It will remove formaldehyde and other gases such as xylene and tolune. Weeping figs can have braided trunks formed from separate stems – this is a decorative plant with a hidden purpose: an air filter. Weeping fig, ficus, plant, houseplant, health, filter, chemicals The weeping fig is beautiful and beneficial too   One of the plants that came ‘tops’ for cleaning the air is the good old ‘spider plant’ Chlorophytum comosum. It can look great in a hanging basket. Just remember to care for it: give it a pruning from time to time or it will become ‘leggy’ and pale. This is a house plant that looks great in a larger arrangement. Team it with something dark and bold such as Philodendron ‘Imperial Red’  to get a great foliage contrast. Spider plant, house plant, houseplant, health, filtering, air The spider plant is a great one for filtering the air Philodendron Imperial Red Philodendron Imperial Red would make a good planting partner with a spider plant Phoenix roebelenii is another palm with a difference! It’s a dwarf palm with a slender, neat trunk and fronds which are delicate, fine and arching.  This is a palm that likes a light position in the home - but not direct sunlight. It does a good job of filtering the air. Beauty and practicality all in one, this makes a great office plant provided there’s enough light. phoenix roebelenii, palm filter, house plant, houseplant, filter, health Phoenix roebelenii is a perfect palm for filtering the air Finally, Hedera helix. Or bog-standard English ivy! It’s a great filtering plant and can be used in arrangements. You’ll hardly know it’s there. Ivy loves to climb or to trail. Give it a moss stick or allow it to dangle from a hanging basket. Make sure it has some water and allow it to work on the environment. A secret spy, finding and eliminating various gases. Hedera, ivy, house plant, houseplant, filter, health, green Ivy. It's simple but effective. These silent workers all help to create a healthy environment in which everyone will thrive. You could liken them to a coal miner’s canary! Beauty and practicality all rolled into one.