Toxic Talk and Labels

Toxic Clean-Up: Houseplants Help Reduce Indoor Air Toxins like Benzene and Formaldehyde

+ Pamela Friedman

Studies have shown that indoor pollution can be worse than outdoor pollution, especially during the winter months when we seal ourselves up inside our houses and apartments. Timothy Buckley, Ph.D., MHS, and associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, warns, “Sealing up windows and doors saves money on the bill, it’s true….But who doesn’t cook, and burn candles, and bring home the dry-cleaning and household products, and buy new clothes? A low air-exchange rate means that whatever fumes are in there are going to stay there and that’s we’re going to have to inhale them.”

Health Dangers of Indoor Air Pollution

Indoor air pollution can cause a lot of problems, including exacerbating the severity of asthma symptoms among adults and children, increasing the occurrence and severity of headaches and respiratory symptoms, and causing fatigue and dizziness. Studies by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) consistently rank indoor air pollution as among the top five environmental threats to public health. The United Nations Development Program estimated in 1998 that more than two million people die each year due to toxic indoor air.

Opening a window once in awhile, investing in a quality air purifier, dusting and vacuuming often, keeping up with the cleaning, and avoiding pollutants like smoke from candles and cigarettes, can all help improve indoor air quality. When it’s cold outside, however, and difficult to air things out, there are other items that can help reduce the toxins in your household air-houseplants!

The Magic of Houseplants

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that common houseplants like the spider plant, snake plant, and golden pothos reduced ozone levels. NASA also conducted a similar study and found that common houseplants can remove several key pollutants associated with indoor air pollution. In fact, NASA was so impressed that they’re going to launch some plants into space as part of the biological life support system aboard  future orbiting space stations.

What Plants Clean Out What Chemicals

According to the NASA study, some of the top plants most effective at cleaning out potentially hazardous chemicals like formaldehyde (found in insulation, particle board, and consumer paper products), benzene (found in inks, oils, paints, plastics, and rubber), and carbon monoxide from the air include the areca palm (also called the butterfly palm), the lady palm, bamboo palm, rubber plant, philodendron, dracaena “Janet Craig,” and the Boston fern.

Alive magazine published a recent article about houseplants and indoor pollution, and the following chart comes from that article, which you may read in depth here. Give it a try-you may find that a few more plants makes your air a lot more pleasant to breathe.

Plant Effective for
bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifritzii) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE
common ivy, English ivy (Hedera helix) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE, toluene, octane, terpene
Janet Craig (Dracaena deremensis) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE
mass cane (Dracaena massangeana) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE
peace lily (Spathiphyllum) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE
pot mum (Chrysanthemum morifolium) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE
purple heart, wandering Jew (Tradescantia pallida) benzene, TCE, toluene, terpene
red ivy (Hemigraphis alternata) benzene, TCE, toluene, octane, terpene
spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum, Chlorophytum elatum) formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide
Sprenger’s asparagus (Asparagus densiflorus) benzene, TCE, toluene, octane, terpene
weeping fig, ficus tree (Ficus benjamina) benzene, formaldehyde, TCE, octane, terpene
wax plant (Hoya carnosa) benzene, TCE, toluene, octane, terpene


Have you increased the number of houseplants in your home to help clean out the air? Please share your experiences.


“It’s Winter: Beware the Indoor Air Pollution,” Public Health News Center, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, January 26, 2005.

Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Indoor Air Pollution Increases Asthma Symptoms, Study Suggests.” ScienceDaily, 19 Feb. 2009. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

Illinois Department of Public Health Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality, Environmental Health Fact Sheet, Illinois Department of Public Health.

American Society for Horticultural Science. “Houseplants Cut Indoor Ozone.” ScienceDaily, 8 Sep. 2009. Web. 11 Jan. 2012.

“NASA Study House Plants Clean Air,” Zone 10, The Plant & Garden Zone for Homeowners.

Will Richter, “The Best Holiday Houseplants,” Alive,

Greg Seaman, “The Top 10 Plants for Removing Indoor Toxins,” EarthEasy, May 13, 2009.