KAILUA-KONA — One way to ease harsh effects from heavy and persistent vog? Bring the outside in.
It sounds counterintuitive. In Hawaii, where electricity is expensive, breezes are bountiful and windows and doors remain almost perpetually ajar, advice to mitigate vog essentially comes down to sealing one’s self up and staying inside.
But the best measure, and perhaps the only measure other than complex air filtration systems almost as pricey to run as they are to buy, is to use the power of nature itself — specifically plant life. In other words, to go green.
“Plants absorb volatile organic compounds from the air into their leaves and then translocate them to their root zone, where microbes break them down, ” according to a paper published in 2007 by the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR).
Flora’s potential as a natural disposal source for polluted air actually began under water as part of research on cleaning up biological warfare centers conducted in the 1960s Bill Wolverton, an environmental scientist working then for the U.S. military.
He discovered that swamp plants naturally cleared agent orange that had seeped into the water. He later continued his work for NASA, expanding to studies of plant life’s impact on air quality.
Now a widely accepted fact, the state Department of Agriculture is encouraging those particularly sensitive to vog who spend much of their time holed up in their homes to surround themselves with 10, 15 or 20 common house plants.
“It would take a lot (of plants) to make a difference,” said Norman Bezona, a horticultural consultant and columnist for West Hawaii Today who runs the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. “The more, the better.”
Establishing abundant indoor collections of plant life would also help Hawaii Island nurseries struggling due to the current Kilauea volcano eruption, said Sharon Hurd, acting administrator of the Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Development Division.
While the indoor plant strategy is far from a cure all, NASA, CTAHR and Bezona say it shouldn’t be overlooked. Bezona, who lives at an altitude of 3,000 feet, said he feels no effects on a daily basis despite being enveloped in heavy vog that frequently obscures Hualalai from the sight of those below.
He believes that’s because of the lush vegetation that surrounds him. But as soon as Bezona dips below 2,000 feet of elevation, he starts to feel it — burning eyes, an irritated throat and all the rest of the symptoms much of Hawaii Island has become familiar with over the last month since the eruption began.
Some plant life withstands and mitigates pollution better than others. Bezona recommended anything in the philodendron family.
CTAHR notes that the bamboo palm, lady palm and peace lily are all effective agents against air pollutants, as well. A list of plants suitable for this purpose along with complete with descriptions and effectiveness ratings is available by visiting https://www.ctahr.hawaii.edu/oc/freepubs/pdf/of-39.pdf.
NASA noted that research also indicates plants improve psychological welfare and help humans recover more quickly from illness.