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.