Air Filtration

I was recently inspired by something that my coworker Lloyd Budd shared on one of our company blogs. Working for Automattic means working from home, so it’s important to consider the environmental factors that can affect your health, happiness, and job performance. This is Kamal Meattle discussing how he grows fresh air in his building in New Delhi, one of the world’s worst cities when it comes to outdoor air quality:

I didn’t do anything with this information for about a year, and then while searching for information on indoor air quality because of my frequent allergies, I came across the original research done by Bill Wolverton, an environmental scientist working at NASA’s Stennis Space Center (I always wondered what they did there when I pass through it on the way to New Orleans). In addition to many technical papers written for the space agency, Dr. Wolverton compiled the data in a nicely designed, easy to read book called How to Grow Fresh Air. Armed with my newfound knowledge, I began with 20 houseplants, a collection of Spathiphyllum and Phalaenopsis — the common peace lily and white orchid. These plants work as a team — among the common household pollutants they both filter, the lilies work on benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene and the orchids take care of xylene and toluene. And they all, of course, convert CO2 to good old oxygen. I’ve got five plants in my office, four in my bedroom, and the rest scattered throughout the ~2,000 sq. ft. house. I could probably add more now that I’ve managed not to kill them for a while. (If you have pets note that some plants, like the peace lily, are toxic to animals and should be kept out of their reach.)

The results so far? I haven’t done any scientific monitoring so I can’t make a quantitative comparison. I can, however, compare my Benadryl intake since starting the experiment to the weeks prior. Since putting the plants to work, I’ve noticed a significant reduction in the frequency of my most common symptoms, sinus headaches and post-nasal drip. These simple improvements in my quality of life are already worth the time and money invested in the project. Having plants reaps an unintended psychological reward as well: the stress reduction provided by taking 15 minutes a day to step away from work to wipe a few leaves or mist the orchids.

The real treat in all of this, though, are the simple beauty of the orchids. I’m a designer; I can’t help my instincts. Meattle’s three suggestions are pretty homely looking plants, so I selected different ones from Dr. Wolverton’s research. The lilies are verdant and beautiful in their own way, but the orchids are knockouts. I took a few quick snapshots with my iPhone to show what I get to look at every day now. In case I’m unable to appeal to the scientist in you, I’ll try the artist.

Update, January 2010: The peace lilies are still going strong, but several of the orchids died off completely when the weather turned cold. I’ve got two new purple phalaenopsis, and two of the white ones from last year are growing bud spikes. Time will tell as to whether my brown thumb has turned greener, but the health effects are holding strong, even after introducing a kitten into the house. I’ve been allergic to cats my whole life, but still never have to take over-the-counter allergy medicines anymore.

13 thoughts on “Air Filtration

  1. Watch out! Orchids are addictive. I got a phal when my my parakeet died earlier this year. That phal died from over watering and because the potting medium was rotten. I repotted my next one as soon as it was done blooming. Now I have a mini oncidium and a Peruvian Masdevalia (I don’t know if I spelled that right, but it looks like little Japanese lanterns). Once you find a good orchid greenhouse, you just keep going back for new ones. I can’t get enough!


    1. Very nice! I started with the simplest, I think the most common variety because I’ve always had a terrible brown thumb. Caring for the orchids is kind of a zen thing, though, with the misting and the wiping. I can see how it’d be addicting; especially the more exotic varieties.


  2. Thank You for this post. I am inspired. I’ve been recently thinking about not having any house plants and only having an outdoor garden. But, after reading this information and watching the video, I’m on my way to the plant store! I also have allergy so impoving my indoor air quality just makes since. Thanks.


  3. I had a plant in my office a few years ago. It was my wife’s idea. Can’t really remember if one single plant made any difference but glad your medication use is gone down! Great result.


  4. Hi Matt. We came across your post and were so delighted with your great idea to purify indoor air with flowers. We placed a link from our Facebook page to yours. The pollution level in the Philippines is quite high though probably not as high as India’s so this idea is great for our followers to know.


  5. Thanks for sharing Matt. I purchased the book also after seeing Kamal’s Ted talk. It is certainly very interesting, why did you not go for more of the green leaved plants as they seem more effective?

    I like your reference to the psychological benefits also.


    1. Hi Chris — I only took pictures of the orchids, since I’m a little biased by their looks. :) In reality, the majority of my 20 houseplants are leafy green peace lilies. The orchids filter a few chemicals that the workhorse lilies don’t, though. And, of course, they’re quite beautiful. :) I picked the combination of lilies and orchids for a solution that filtered each of the air pollutants listed in Wolverton’s book.


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