Research says indoor plants improve air quality, combat vog

  • A unique dendrobium orchid is displayed at a recent Kona Daifukuji Orchid Club Show. Dendrobiums are rated a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 for vapor removal. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • The hiking trail in the Kona Cloud Forest Sanctuary. Plants, which absorb volatile organic compounds from the air into their leaves and then translocate them to their root zone, where microbes break them down, have the potential as a natural disposal source for polluted air. (Lena Gasperov/Special to West Hawaii Today)

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.

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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.

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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.

  1. Joe Sixpac June 5, 2018 6:20 am

    So before you run out and fill your house with plants – remember the photos of the plants over in Puna that yellowed in response to the sulfur dioxide? That confirms sulfur dioxide’s is poisonous to plants at high concentrations and while plants will remove low levels of SO2 from the air, the typical house in Hawaii is not sealed up like a house in upstate New York and is going to be getting steady supply of high concentrations of SO2 to absorb so it is going to take a lot of plants processing a lot of SO2 to keep the air in your house clean. Given the concentrations of SO2 in some areas, house plants could just as easily die like the plants we saw near the fissures. The other thing is that a lot of Hawaiian houses aren’t air conditioned so closing up the house just might not be possible. It would be great if we could mitigate this situation but we are in the middle some extreme conditions and attempts at mitigation may be akin to trying to boil the ocean. Sadly it is likely the only way to avoid exposure is to remove yourself from the conditions.


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