A Breath of Fresh Air: How to Create Your Own Clean Air Space

Air is something we take for granted. We cannot survive for more than a few minutes without it, but how often do we stop to think about it or appreciate it?

When I was a child, my mother always told me to go outside and get some fresh air. She believed that the air outside was much fresher and healthier than the air inside our house; and she was right. Polluted air causes problems with our respiratory systems. Over time, this can lead to serious issues. Analyses of air pollution have shown that, “air pollution is significantly associated with mortality and morbidity.”[1]

Currently, Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors.[2] That means we spend the majority of our time breathing poor quality air. Perhaps it was for this reason that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Identified indoor air pollution as one of the most important environmental risks to the Nation’s health.”[3]

In the last few decades, there has been a “dramatic increase” in the pollutants released into our homes.[4] Our society has been developing rapidly and many technologies exist today that our ancestors simply did not have. The fact is, these new technologies are largely responsible for the indoor pollution we are experiencing.

The sources of indoor air pollution are numerous: synthetic building materials and furnishings, paint, carpeting, household appliances (such as gas ranges and heating and cooling systems), pesticides, cleaning products, dust, mold, smoke, personal care products, air fresheners, and soil gases (such as radon), not to mention the pollutants already present in the air outside. All of these things cause particles to be emitted into the air, which we then breathe.

On top of this, buildings are being constructed in a more energy efficient manner. This means the buildings are more airtight, which saves you money when you are heating or cooling your home. However, the consequence of this is that our buildings are suffering more and more from a lack of ventilation.[5] This means that all the harmful pollutants, which are being emitted inside our homes, are trapped inside.

Clearing the Air

There are several steps we can take to improve our air quality. Generally, controlling or removing the sources of pollution is the most effective measure you can take. Have your stove and furnace serviced to reduce emissions. Keep your floors clean by vacuuming and mopping. Avoiding scented sprays, polishes, deodorants, soaps and detergents will also reduce the amount of chemicals in the air.

Good ventilation is important, as it will bring in fresh, clean air into your home. This is especially important when using any chemicals or cleaning supplies.  However, it is very beneficial at other times as well. Weather permitting, try to keep the windows open for a while every day, especially in children’s bedrooms. It’s not only pleasant, but some of the bad air will literally be blown away.

Air filtration systems can be useful, but their effectiveness is based upon their size and the quality of the unit. Also, check and see what a filter will remove, as many do a good job of filtering dust and pollen, but do not remove hazardous gases.

For a simple and attractive option, did you know that houseplants actually filter many toxins from the air? Besides acting like miniature air purifiers, they are completely natural. NASA has actually been researching the effect plants have on the air for some time.[6] While their goal is to find ways to keep the air in space stations habitable for long periods of time, we can easily apply their findings to our homes and offices.

NASA studies showed plants to be effective at removing harmful elements, like benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene, from the air.[7] These elements are more common than you may think. For example, formaldehyde (which is a leading cause of asthma) is found in thousands of consumer products including textiles, cleaning products, construction materials, paper products, cosmetics, fertilizers, and plastics.[8]

While it is likely that all houseplants purify the air to a certain extent, there are some that excel more than others. It would be ideal to have an assortment of different plants placed throughout the house.

Fortunately, the majority of the plants NASA tested were common household plants and should be easily available at your local nursery.

Some of the best plants for removing formaldehyde included: bamboo palms, Janet Craig dracaenas, mother-in-law’s tongues, and marginatas.

For removing benzene: gerbera daisies, pot mums, peace lilies, and warneckei dracaenas.

For removing trichloroethylene: gerbera daisies, marginatas, peace lilies, and Janet Craig dracaenas.

Other good plants include: English ivy, rubber plants, weeping figs, and Boston ferns.

So pick up some plants and add some freshness to your air and to your décor as well.

[1] Chauhan, Anoop J., and Sebastian L. Johnston. “Air Pollution and Infection in Respiratory Illness.” British Medical Bulletin 68, no. 1 (December 1, 2003): 95–112.

[2] USEPA. Characterizing Air Emissions from Indoor Sources. Washington, DC: United States Environmental Protection Agency, 1995.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] Wolverton, Dr. B. C., Anne Johnson, and Keith Bounds. “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement.” National Aeronautics and Space Administration, no. MS 39529–6000 (September 1989).

[6] Brown, Deborah L. “Houseplants Help Clean Indoor Air”. University of Minnesota Extension Service, 1999.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Formaldehyde.” Illinois Department of Public Health.

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Jon Ewald, MD

Jon Ewald grew up in Minnesota and has a love for the outdoors. He obtained his medical degree at Loma Linda University, graduating in 2020. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at University of Pittsburgh.

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