Those plants in your office may not be as good for the air as you thought

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We’re in the middle of a houseplant explosion, and besides enjoying them because they’re pretty and relaxing to be around, people like that, as an added bonus, houseplants purify the air.

Hot houseplant delivery site the Sill touts both its ZZ plant and its Parlor Palm for their air-purifying qualities. Online plant retailer Bloomscape lets you search for the plants you want by filtering your search for plants that function as an “air cleaner.”

Everyone might want to rethink that. New research from Drexel College of Engineering has discovered that the idea of houseplants as air purifiers is a long-running, vastly overexaggerated claim.

“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,” said Michael Waring, PhD, an associate professor of architectural and environmental engineering in Drexel’s College of Engineering.

What really cleans the air inside homes and offices? Ventilation systems. Plants can help, but they just don’t move quickly enough.

Justin Mast, founder & CEO of Bloomscape, isn’t worried. Plants have myriad benefits, he says, and there’s no point on fixating on just one.

“At Bloomscape we’re really focused on strengthening the relationship between our customers and their plants – it’s all about the feeling that plants provide,” he told Ladders. “We call it gezellig – a Dutch word that means beyond that good, cozy, and warm feeling. From published research, we know that plants can bring happiness, and humans’ need to connect to nature is deep and provides for a healthy well-rounded lifestyle.

The study

For the study, Waring and one of his doctoral students, Bryan Cummings, reviewed a dozen studies – stretching across 30 years of research – to make the conclusions, which were published in Nature’s Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology.

Their findings are such: while plants do have air-cleaning properties, what they do is overshadowed by natural or modern ventilation in homes and offices that work hyper-efficiently, diluting concentrations of volatile organic compounds much more quickly than plants can.

On the other hand… plants are better than modern technology at cleaning air pollution.

While modern ventilation might be better than plants at cleaning the air indoors, it turns out that plants are better than technology at reducing air pollution outdoors.

Adding plants and trees to the areas near factories and other sources of contamination (like roadways, power plants, and gas and drilling sites) and could reduce air pollution by an average of 27%, new research from Ohio State University suggests.

And it’s the plants that are more effective at reducing this air pollution than using high-tech, like smokestack scrubbers.

“The fact is that traditionally, especially as engineers, we don’t think about nature; we just focus on putting technology into everything,” said Bhavik Bakshi, lead author of the study and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State University, in a release.

“And so, one key finding is that we need to start looking at nature and learning from it and respecting it. There are win-win opportunities if we do – opportunities that are potentially cheaper and better environmentally.”

So let’s hear it for the plants. They may not purify your home, but they’re saving the world.