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Use plants to remove toxins

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Our places of work often suffer from poor indoor air quality, and as the toxins build up, our health can suffer. Try adding some plants to the workplace that absorb toxic chemicals.

Coughs, colds, sniffles, lethargy, allergies, headaches - perhaps your workplace is giving you sick building syndrome.

The CSIRO estimates that the cost of poor indoor air quality in Australia may be as high as $12 billion per year (Brown, 1998). In recent years, comparative risk studies performed by the US EPA and its Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health (US EPA, 1993).

The indoor pollutants that affect health include formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (benzene and trichloroethylene or TCE), airborne biological pollutants, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, pesticides and disinfectants (phenols) and radon. These pollutants contribute to sick building syndrome, which causes symptoms ranging from allergies, headaches and fatigue through to nervous-system disorders, cancer and death.

Fortunately, the boffins at NASA have found that certain plants and the microbes at their roots can, through their normal photosynthetic processes, absorb these pollutants and provide the fresh air and humidity that makes us healthier. Their research identified a collection of easy-to-grow indoor plants that can remedy 'sick building syndrome' and make your workplace a palace of respiratory health.

How to do it now!

Pollutants are emitted from furnishings, office equipment and some building materials. Deck your workplace out with a collection of the following plants and breathe easy.

Top ten plants for removing formaldehyde, benzene, and carbon monoxide from the air:

  1. Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) - semi-sun
  2. Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) - semi-sun
  3. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) - semi-sun
  4. Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta) - semi-sun to semi-shade
  5. Dracaena 'Janet Craig' (Dracaena deremensis 'Janet Craig') - semi-shade
  6. Philodendron (Philodendron sp) - semi-shade
  7. Dwarf Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii) - semi-sun
  8. Ficus Alii (Ficus macleilandii 'Alii') - full sun to semi-sun
  9. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata 'Bostoniensis) - semi-sun
  10. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum "Mauna Loa ") - semi-shade

The above list of plants has been shown to remove chemicals from the air, avoiding the toxic build-up of chemicals that contribute to sick building syndrome. Even NASA agrees!

Additional resources

For more information on indoor air quality try the following links:

Why is this action important?

This action will improve your health and the health of your work colleagues (it might even help out your boss!). The table below provides an overview of some of the relevant toxins and health concerns.






Pressed wood products (hardwood, plywood wall panelling, particleboard, fibreboard) and furniture made with these pressed wood products; urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI); combustion sources and environmental tobacco smoke; durable press drapes and other textiles; glues

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; wheezing and coughing; fatigue; skin rash; asthma; severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer


Paints, paint strippers, and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents; air fresheners

Repeated skin contact with benzene will cause drying, inflammation, blistering and dermatitis. Acute inhalation of high levels of benzene has been reported to cause dizziness, weakness, euphoria, headache, nausea, blurred vision, respiratory diseases, tremors, irregular heartbeat, liver and kidney damage, paralysis and unconsciousness.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Metal degreasers; dry cleaners; printing inks; paints; lacquers; varnishes; adhesives

Eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Believed to cause liver cancer in humans.

Airborne biological pollutants

Mould; dust mites; pet dander (skin flakes); droppings and body parts from cockroaches, rodents and other pests or insects; viruses; bacteria

Some biological contaminants trigger allergic reactions, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis, and some types of asthma. Infectious illnesses such as influenza, measles, and chicken pox are transmitted through the air. Moulds and mildews release disease-causing toxins. Symptoms of health problems caused by biological pollutants include sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy, fever, and digestive problems.

Carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide

Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; tobacco smoke

At low concentrations, carbon monoxide causes fatigue in healthy people and chest pain in people with heart disease. At higher concentrations, it causes impaired vision and coordination; headaches; dizziness; confusion and nausea. Nitrogen Dioxide causes eye, nose, and throat irritation. It may cause impaired lung function and increased respiratory infections in young children.


Products used to kill household pests (insecticides, termiticides, and disinfectants); products used on lawns and gardens that drift or are tracked inside the house

Irritation to eye, nose, and throat; damage to central nervous system and kidney; increased risk of cancer. 


(phenols, which include biphenyl, phenolics and the preservative pentachloraphenol)

Disinfectants; antiseptics; perfumes; mouthwashes; glues; air fresheners

Skin, eyes, and mucous membrane irritation. At lethal doses it causes irregular breathing, muscle weakness and tremors, loss of coordination, convulsions, coma, and respiratory arrest.