Using the right plants can reduce indoor pollution and save energy

April 19, 2018, Cell Press
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

People in industrialized countries spend more than 80% of their lives indoors, increasingly in air-tight buildings. These structures require less energy for heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, but can be hazardous to human health if particulate matter and potentially toxic gases, including carbon monoxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds, from sources such as furniture, paints, carpets, and office equipment accumulate. Plants absorb toxins and can improve indoor air quality, but surprisingly little is known about what plants are best for the job and how we can make plants perform better indoor.

In a Review published April 19 in Trends in Plant Science, Frederico Brilli, a plant physiologist at the National Research Council of Italy—Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection, and colleagues conclude that a better knowledge of plant physiology, along with integration of smart-sensor-controlled air cleaning technologies, could improve in a cost-effective and sustainable way.

Plants improve air quality through several mechanisms: they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis, they increase humidity by transpiring water vapor through microscopic leaf pores, and they can passively absorb pollutants on the external surfaces of leaves and on the plant root-soil system. But plants are usually selected for indoor use not for their air-purifying abilities but for their appearance and ability to survive while requiring little maintenance. "For most of us plants are just a decorative element, something aesthetic, but they are also something else" says Brilli.

Surprisingly little research has been done to quantify the effects of different plant species on indoor air quality. NASA performed pioneering work in the 1980s, but they relied on a simple experimental approach; studies with more sophisticated, modern research methods and modeling have not yet been conducted. Further research is needed identify the characteristics of the highest-performing plant species in indoor environments, including their morphology (i.e. leaf shape and size), anatomy, and physiology (i.e., CO2 assimilation rate). According to Brilli, such studies could show how to "optimize the use of plants indoors, in terms of how many plants per square meter we need to reduce air pollution to a certain level."

Research is also needed to understand plant microbiomes: the populations of microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) that live with plants both in the soil and on leaf surfaces. This microbiome participates in the removal of airborne pollutants, but the contribution of different microbial species to removing pollutants is currently unknown. Some microbiomes could also have negative effects on , including triggering allergies and lung inflammation problems, so knowing how to identify and avoid those will be important.

Brilli and colleagues do not envision plants replacing modern heating, ventilation, and systems, but they argue that integrating with smart sensors networks and other computerized technologies could make those air cleaning more cost-effective and sustainable. Says Brilli, "plant physiologists should work with architects to improve the green indoors."

Explore further: Root microbiome valuable key to plants surviving drought

More information: Trends in Plant Science, Brilli et al.: "Plants for sustainable improvement of indoor air quality" , DOI: 10.1016/j.tplants.2018.03.004

Related Stories

Root microbiome valuable key to plants surviving drought

January 23, 2018

Just as the microorganisms in our gut are increasingly recognized as important players in human health and behavior, new research from the University of Toronto Mississauga demonstrates that microorganisms are equally critical ...

Selecting the right house plant could improve indoor air

August 24, 2016

Indoor air pollution is an important environmental threat to human health, leading to symptoms of "sick building syndrome." But researchers report that surrounding oneself with certain house plants could combat the potentially ...

Clearing the air: The hidden wonders of indoor plants

July 11, 2013

It may come as a surprise but air pollution levels indoors are almost always higher than outside, even in busy city centres. Even more surprising is that indoor plants have the ability to mitigate high levels of most airborne ...

Keep the Aspidistra flying

July 18, 2013

Grown for its ability to survive neglect, shady conditions and the effects of gas used for lighting, the Aspidistra was such a popular houseplant in late Victorian Britain that it came to represent – as novelist George ...

Air purification via plants and trees

February 2, 2017

In addition to improving the ambiance in buildings, plants also purify the air. But how does this work, and which conditions are best for this filtering? Three scientists from Wageningen University & Research discuss the ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists discover Incan tomb in Peru

February 16, 2019

Peruvian archaeologists discovered an Incan tomb in the north of the country where an elite member of the pre-Columbian empire was buried, one of the investigators announced Friday.

Where is the universe hiding its missing mass?

February 15, 2019

Astronomers have spent decades looking for something that sounds like it would be hard to miss: about a third of the "normal" matter in the Universe. New results from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory may have helped them ...

What rising seas mean for local economies

February 15, 2019

Impacts from climate change are not always easy to see. But for many local businesses in coastal communities across the United States, the evidence is right outside their doors—or in their parking lots.

The friendly extortioner takes it all

February 15, 2019

Cooperating with other people makes many things easier. However, competition is also a characteristic aspect of our society. In their struggle for contracts and positions, people have to be more successful than their competitors ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Apr 19, 2018
There have now been many many studies of the pollution-reducing potential of houseplants. The author is a little late to the party.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2018
lochroma, with all due respect. The researchers in this article are attempting in-depth studies using recently developed instrumentation and strict methodology. Followed by rigorous analysis of verifiable data.

Please feel free to list some of those articles you cite as equivalent to this research program. Because I would be interested in reading them.

This brings up the issue of 'terrior'. While investigating the measurable effects of folk-medicinal herbs. I discovered there was no accuracy in quality of products.

As with wine production. Each growing plot of an herb often produced quite different results in the medicinal qualities of the same plant.

That is why many bottled wines sold, even of the same grape, are blends from different locations. The customers expect & demand a certain bouquet from a label.

That raises health safety issues with blending medicinal herbs. When you cannot absolutely control the natural growth of each plant.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 20, 2018
they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis

I wonder why they always forget that plants do the reverse at night (well, if you want to be picky they do the reverse all the time, but during the day photosynthesis outweighs respiration)

"For most of us plants are just a decorative element, something aesthetic, but they are also something else"

Yes they are also something else, But let's not underestimate the positive impact of aesthetics on health, either.
1 / 5 (1) Apr 21, 2018
Well mack, since you want to 'branch' away from the subject of this article.

When are you going to produce a working cold fusion prototype device for public verification required by the standards for application to the Patent Office?

Unless there are armed guards on your cell door preventing you from creating such a marvel of the ages?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.