In a world filled with several options for expensive, “cutting edge” air purifiers and filters, there are several simple steps that can be taken to improve air quality naturally. This post will highlight what to do, or what not to do, to improve the indoor air quality (IAQ) naturally.
The simplest way to improve IAQ is by increasing the ventilation in the space. This means introducing outdoor air into the building. Homes tend to be very closed up to the outside, which is good to maintain thermal comfort indoors but bad for the IAQ. Introducing outdoor air dilutes the contaminants that are present inside. Opening a window is a very simple way to get more airflow and improve the general indoor air quality naturally in a space.
Preventing contaminants from causing problems in the first place is probably the best way to improve the indoor air quality naturally. This is known as source control and it can begin at the early stages of building a home. Choosing finishes such as cabinets, flooring, and paints that emit low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can prevent off-gassing and lower VOC levels in the home. It is best to select durable materials that don’t require harsh chemicals for cleaning and maintenance [note]Development of a design guide to improve building IAQ, Andrew, P., et. al., 2008.[/note]. Another simple way to implement source control is by purchasing fragrance-free or no-VOC personal care products and household cleaners.
Can Plants Improve Air Quality Naturally?
Implementing source control to prevent IAQ problems can even be used when considering the use of potted plants in a space. Yes, plants! I enjoy having plants in my home and very much enjoyed my botany class in college, but unfortunately, they are not the miracle solution to improve air quality naturally.
A famous study conducted by NASA in 1989 showed that when a pollutant was injected into a sealed chamber, a plant could reduce the VOC levels by as much as 90% in a 24 hour period[note]Interior landscape plants for indoor air pollutant abatement, Final Report, Wolverton, B.C., et. al, 1989.[/note]. This study had many problems. This experiment does not show the impact that ventilation would have in a real-world situation. A separate study conducted by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America & Healthy Buildings International conducted a field experiment in an office building which compared the levels of certain contaminants on different floors with and without plants[note]Potted-plant/growth media interactions and capacities for removal of volatiles from indoor air, Proceedings of Health Buildings, Wood, R.A. et. al., 2003.[/note]. The result showed “no reduction of pollutant concentrations”[note]Potted-plant/growth media interactions and capacities for removal of volatiles from indoor air, Proceedings of Health Buildings, Wood, R.A. et. al., 2003.[/note]. The NASA experiment also fails to provide the mass of pollutant removed per hour per plant which would be useful information in order for it to have real-world applications. To learn more about plants and indoor air quality, we recommend reading “How Well Do House Plants Perform as Indoor Air Cleaners?”
Many people use plants to increase the oxygen levels, however, the increase is usually so small that it is difficult to even measure.
Not only do plants fail to remove significant levels of indoor air pollutants, they also can add some pollutants. Over-watering plants can lead to mold and bacteria problems. Some plants may require pesticides and fertilizers that can have a negative impact on IAQ.
Now to burst another bubble. Essential oils are often seen as natural and beneficial to human health. They are used for aromatherapy, in yoga studios, and as a deodorizer. As it turns out, essential oils may do more harm than good. Essential oils are made through the distillation of natural materials such as citrus rinds. (I have even distilled my share of essential oils in a chemistry class in the past.) The distillation process produces terpenes. These terpenes can interact with free radicals in the air such as hydroxyls and ozone and yield formaldehyde and organic aerosols which are fine and ultrafine particles[note]Effects of essential oils on formation of formaldehyde and secondary organic aerosols in aromatherapy environment, Huey-Jen, et. al.[/note]. One study of a spa studio found that the total VOCs and fine particle pollution increased when essential oils were used[note]Effects of essential oils on formation of formaldehyde and secondary organic aerosols in aromatherapy environment, Huey-Jen, et. al.[/note]. Clearly, essentials oils do not improve air quality naturally.
If you are interested in improving your indoor air quality naturally, the best strategy is source control and outdoor air ventilation. Be careful with using houseplants or essential oils to improve air quality. Plants and oils may create a peaceful indoor environment, but they will likely reduce the air’s quality.
If you are concerned about your indoor air quality contact our office.