Give the Gift of Fresh Air 

Buy a houseplant

Determined gardeners don't stop gardening just because that interloper, Old Man Winter, shows up like some nosey, unwanted guest. With bony, white probing fingers, he blackens petals and dries leaves on your choicest flowers in his eagerness to touch everything in your collection. If all gardeners had the means, we'd probably flee to a warmer climate just to avoid this yearly visit from winter, which shows up way too soon and stays far too long. Steadfast gardeners who can't fly south deal with winter by bringing the tropics indoors; they grow houseplants.

Indoor plants provide plant lovers with something green to nurture and enjoy. Yet this army of green, lined up like soldiers on window sills and counter tops, is more than just an outlet for a gardening addiction; it also serves as a valuable weapon in fighting indoor air pollution.

In the process of trying to reduce heating and cooling bills by making homes and office buildings more air tight and energy efficient, we have now created another problem: trapped air pollutants that arise from the synthetic materials used in construction, furnishings and equipment. These volatile organic chemicals cause what's referred to as "Sick Building Syndrome." Toxins found in the air of buildings—like formaldehyde, ammonia, benzene, carbon monoxide, xylene and trichloroethylene—can cause a variety of health problems. Since most of the winter is spent indoors in homes and offices, air quality should be foremost on our minds if not right under our noses.

Indoor air is so polluted that it exceeds acceptable air pollution standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In fact, one EPA report states that "indoor air pollution represents a major portion of the public's exposure to air pollution and may pose serious acute and chronic health risks." The economic impact of bad indoor air quality is costly. Researchers at the Berkeley National Laboratory found that U.S. companies could save as much as $58 billion annually if they prevented "sick building" illnesses by creating offices with better indoor air quality. Plants have long been known as nature's air purifiers. Anyone who has ever taken a high school biology class learned about plants and their amazing ability to absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen and carbohydrates. Plants literally keep us alive by maintaining the oxygen supply on this planet, but it goes even further than that according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). What NASA scientists discovered was that indoor plants can drastically reduce toxic chemical levels inside buildings with poor ventilation. Some 20 common houseplants were tested for their pollution fighting abilities by NASA in their search for ways to clean the air in future space stations. What they discovered about plants follows.

Benzene, a contaminant that exists in tobacco smoke, plastics, paints, gasoline, inks, detergents and synthetic fibers, can cause nervousness, dizziness, headaches and anemia. It also irritates eyes and skin. But jumping to our rescue to absorb this pollutant and break it down are plants such as English ivy, gerbera daisy, chrysanthemum, devil's ivy (Epiprenum), peace lily (Spathiphyllum) and the ornamental corn plant (Dracaena marginata).

Formaldehyde, a contaminant found in foam insulation, paper towels and facial tissues, plywood, veneers, carpeting and household cleaners, can irritate mucous membranes and the upper respiratory tract and cause asthma. Plants like Boston fern, bamboo palm, philodendron, chrysanthemum (again!), dwarf date palm, snake plant (Sansevieria) and spider plant help rid the air of formaldehyde.

Trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen that attacks the liver, is present in dry-cleaning solutions, and many inks, paints, varnishes, lacquers and adhesives. The green marines fighting to overthrow this toxin are: chrysanthemum (yet again!), gerbera daisy, peace lily and two cultivars of Dracaena deremensis (Warneckii and Janet Craig).

Dwarf date palm is most effective at removing xylene and lady palm is a champ at breaking down ammonia. Isn't it amazing? Plants, and the microorganisms affiliated with them, are incredible in their abilities to clean up after us. Those wondrous green screens are now considered the most effective, economical and aesthetic way of combating indoor pollution, but to boast air quality in a 1,800-square-foot space, you'll need a minimum of 15 to 20 plants.

Anyone can be successful with houseplants, if you first take the time to get acquainted with your little green friends and keep an eye on them. Read up on the plants you've chosen. Plenty of information can be found at the library, on the Internet and at bookstores. Find out what your new leafy orphans need to survive. Will your adopted pot-bound friends require it dry and warm or cool and moist? Do they need high, intense light or low, indirect light? As with any adoption, you'll have to be totally honest with yourself. How many minutes can you devote to your leafy wards? Perhaps you're the type who forgets to water plants because you're busy doing a million other things. Select succulents or cacti. If you're a person who enjoys fiddling with something, then choose a fern or similar plant that thrives on frequent misting. If your life is fairly scheduled but you can include simple plant maintenance, like weekly watering and a fertilization every six weeks, then you'll find hundreds of beautiful foliage plants to live with. There's a plant out there to fit every lifestyle and taste. This Christmas, do yourself and a friend a favor, give the gift of clean air—buy a houseplant.

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