Indoor plants: How nature's air purifiers can help deionise your house, cure 'sick home' syndrome

In one of my visits to Kolkata, it was suggested to me that I address a club of rich, educated women, many of whom ran small empires of their own, on the subject of growing plants inside the house – since it is a topic of my interest.

The club members came, appearing slightly disinterested, probably expecting to be taught about medicinal plants or herbs or kitchen gardens. But as we progressed, their interest visibly peaked as they began taking notes. Hopefully, they put them to use and have started collecting the plants mentioned in the talk.

Many are not aware of a condition known as "sick home syndrome". You only know of the recurring headaches at home, or that sometimes you feel dizzy and nauseated or that a cough or sinus problems won't go away. Sometimes, when you enter a house, even with the windows open or the air-conditioning at full blast, a foul smell or the feeling of claustrophobia hits you. But then when you enter a house with a similar layout, you feel good, you breathe better, feel lighter and happier.

None of these reactions is only psychological. They are all related to the chemical poisoning in the house that you are not aware of. Indoor pollutants from furniture, carpets, wall panelling, stationary items, and electrical equipment build up and the typical signs of a sick building syndrome are lethargy, a dull tension headache, irritability, mental and physical fatigue, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat and symptoms similar to flu or asthma. This syndrome is recognised by the World Health Organisation. It is safe to assume that marriages have split up because of an irritability that might have disappeared if the physical pollutants in the house were dealt with, rather than an imagined discord.

Plants. Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

That some come back more tired than others from their desk jobs at the office could well be due to a polluting environment. It applies similarly to housewives, who feel restless and nauseous when at home and blame it on their husband and boredom. When I was living at my 12, Willingdon Crescent residence in New Delhi, I used to sneeze my way through the day when I stayed at home. As soon as I left, I would be all right. I wonder if I was attacked by a similar pollutant.

Continuous exposure to gaseous toxic substances at home or in the office can lead to irreversible illnesses. Over the last 25 years, the number of chemical emitting products that are used in homes has increased – chipboard, plywood, veneers, plastics, artificial fibres, insecticides, cleaners, solvents, sprays, cosmetics. Countless artefacts, with which we are confronted with daily, all contribute to the toxic atmosphere.

The solutions to these problems are two-fold. One is removing most of these things from the house. But most of the time that is not possible. Opening the windows doesn't always help either. The second solution is one that scientists have emerged with after years of experimentation. Quite a few ordinary houseplants are capable of removing chemicals from the air. Don't you feel better when you enter a house which is full of plants? It is not just the colour green, which scientists say is restful for the eyes. Certain plants actually remove toxic chemicals from the air.

Plastics, cigarette smoke and a variety of cleaning solution are by far the most common source of domestic emissions. While cigarette smoke is visible, the emission from most other sources is colourless. Plastics smell, but we don't notice because we have become accustomed to the smell by birth.

On the other hand, cleaners have a distinctly foul odour in addition to being irritants to our skin and eyes. Household plants are useful in tackling domestic pollution. During the process of photosynthesis, chemicals are absorbed by the plants and biologically degraded.

Benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene are the main chemicals used in your home and office. Here are their characteristics and effects:

- Benzene is derived from petroleum hydrocarbons. It is found in tobacco smoke. In fact, all types of smoke contain it. So do synthetic fibres and all plastics (count the plastic items in your house, starting with soap dishes), synthetic inks, rubbers, even highlighters made of fluorescent colours.

Benzene is acutely toxic and a chronic poison and carcinogen. It irritates the eyes and skin, causes headaches, drowsiness, nervousness, fatigue and psychological disturbances. It causes a range of health problems from anaemia to leukaemia. It is one of the chemicals termed "environmental contaminant".

- Formaldehyde can be dissolved in water and used to make formalin. Does new furniture give you a headache? That is because this chemical is found in particle board, chipboard, resins, foam insulation, plywood and synthetic carpeting. We use it wrongly as a household cleaner. Even some shampoos have it. Formaldehyde irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat and upper respiratory tract. It is a potent cause of headaches.

- Trichloroethylene is considered a potent liver carcinogen by the US National Cancer Institute. It is found in adhesives, varnishes, dry-cleaned clothes, inks, lacquers and paints.

Here are some plants that have been found to be active in neutralising these chemicals: Gerbera jamesonii, Chrysanthemum morifolium, Spathiphyllun (common name: Peace Lily), Dracaena marginata, Nephrolepsis (common indoor fern with the commonFishbone fern), Phoenix roebelinii (common name: Pygmy Date Palm), Chamaedorea (common name: Bamboo Palm), several spider plants (Chlorophytum elatum) hung up all over the house are particularly effective in breaking down the chemical buildup.

All these plants are commonly found in India. Check with your local nursery and bring them home today, if you want to see a difference in the atmosphere of your house.

Besides ridding the air of chemicals, plants also absorb odours. In poorly ventilated houses, indoor plants remove domestic emissions, provide clean air and increase the supply of much-needed oxygen. During photosynthesis, plants release large amounts of water into the air – a process known as evapotranspiration.

Consequently, plants, when placed together inside your houses, increase the moisture content, in the process bringing down the room temperature. This means that you need to run your air-conditioners and coolers for shorter periods of time. This is not only a financially favourable proposition but is also environment-friendly, as less energy is used and less coal burnt, with a consequent decrease in greenhouse gases.

If you have a plant working for you in an artificially lit environment with no windows or fresh air, it will detoxify the ambient chemicals and increase the oxygen. But not infinitely. You will need to locate it in natural light and air at least once a week. Another option is to group several plants together so that humidity is increased and they stay healthier.

Some of the most effective air-cleaning plants, which can easily be used as domestic air filters and cleaners are: Dwarf Banana (Musa ensete/nana/zehrina/paradisiaca vittata), Golden Pathos (Soindapsus aureus), Chinese Evergreen (Aglaonema), Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum), Peperomia, Mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria), Nephthytis (Syngonium podophyllum).

Another equally important service that plants perform is deionisation. Our nervous system functions on small electric impulses in the form of ions being received and sent by the brain to various organs. Our body, therefore, is very sensitive to changes in ion concentrations in the ambient environment. Air that is overcharged with positive ions has a negative effect on health and air balanced with negative ions has a positive effect.

Our homes and workplaces often generate and trap so many positive ions that the occupants complain of ill health without knowing why. In general, positive ions are emitted by metallic objects while non-metallic sources release negative ions. Consequently, rooms that have the TV or the video on, synthetic wall to wall carpeting or any other synthetic fabrics like curtains, nickel-chromium wire in heaters (especially bar heaters), air-conditioning systems and synthetic fabric curtains, make you tired, irritable, tense, anxious or depressed.

This is the effect that the positive ions generated by these things have on you. Heating and air-conditioning systems deplete negative ions and add positive ions to the air during recirculation through metal ducts. Doesn't the air feel heavy, leaving you lethargic and drowsy, just before a storm? That is because the air is full of positive ions. Certain hot winds occasionally carry an extreme number of positive ions and they have an unpleasant effect on people.

In nature, negative ions are manufactured by rain, lightning, sunshine, and the breaking up of water droplets in surf, waterfalls and fountains. These clean out the air with negative ions so you feel better after the storm and the air feels fresher and cooler. Traditional Mughal architecture in India is characterised by running water around the houses and palaces. Without knowing what it actually did, the Mughals knew, from their experience in the deserts, that running water made them feel better and so the fountain became part of their aesthetic design.

There are two ways to increase the negative ions at home. One is to buy an ioniser, which releases thousands of ions into the air and clears the positively charged dust, smoke and pollutants by attracting and negatively charging them. This doesn't get rid of them, it makes them heavier so that they sink rather than float where they will be breathed in. Or you can use nature's ioniser, a low-tech alternative: the presence of water, as moisture released from plants is effective in countering an increased concentration of positive ions in the air.

More specifically, the Torch Cactus (cereus peruvianus) is ideal to counteract the fatigue and headaches in offices where a large number of people are huddled together working on computer terminals or with electrical equipment. Even at home, if you are exposed to electronic equipment at close range, the Torch Cactus has a de-ionising effect. (Workers at the New York Stock Exchange use this plant to restore equilibrium to the electromagnetically disturbed environment).

The Torch Cactus maintains the ion balance in the closed environs of a room by generating an excess of negative ions. In the presence of a higher number of negative ions, our bodies are able to absorb a greater amount of oxygen. This not only results in a healthier body metabolism but also increases our working capacity. People who live with smokers benefit from the plant's ability to decrease smoke levels in the air. It even reduces airborne infection because bacteria travels attached to dust particles.

So, make a quick visit to the nursery down the road. It's better than spending hours at the doctors'!

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Published Date: May 30, 2017 01:08 pm | Updated Date: May 30, 2017 01:08 pm

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