The Law of Unintended Consequences

Now that you have decided you are going to help clean up the planet, you are probably looking for something new that you can do this year.  You replaced all the incandescent light bulbs in the house with the new fluorescent ones because 13W = 60W and even a fool can figure out that is a good thing.  Of course they don’t tell you that the new fluorescent bulbs contain mercury and the old bulbs don’t.  So much for cleaning up the planet.

For a long time you have thought that the fence along your yard was unsightly and so you decided to replace it with a “natural” fence.  You bought a nice variety of low plantings and fruit or cedar trees and now you have a much nicer border.  Of course it takes copious amounts of water, yearly insecticide treatments, and bi-yearly fertilizer/weed killer treatments for all these plantings, but they look nice and they help make up for the depleting rainforests.  But all the chemicals you are using to keep this small patch of beauty alive are flowing down into the water table and (in my case) into the Chesapeake Bay.  Also, those low growers like azalea or pampas grass attract all the little animals; snakes, mice, ground hogs, chipmunks, squirrels, etc. because it is such a natural hiding place for them.  Maybe that fence wasn’t so bad after all.

If you live in the northern climates you probably have a fireplace.  There’s nothing more wonderful than a roaring fire to help heat the house when it’s cold and snowy outside.  But it probably didn’t take you long to figure out that you lose more heat up the flue once the fire has turned to embers than you ever got with that beautiful flame.  So you graduated to a built-in woodstove; much better.  The house is seriously warm and wood is a renewable resource.  If only one person in the neighborhood has a woodstove, it smells kind of nice, almost old world.  But when 2 in 4 people have them you can hardly breathe.   People love to put green wood in the stoves.  So you graduated up to a pellet stove.  The pellets are made of discarded sawdust from a sawmill and they burn 90% efficient.  Best of all there is no smoke or smell from your chimney and the normal effluent is 300 ppm.  Even better, you can set the temp at 70 degrees and not have to look at it again for 24 hours.  Still, if everyone had a pellet stove putting out 300 ppm …  The best choice for a fireplace insert is, of course, a natural gas insert.  It burns so cleanly and efficiently it doesn’t even need a flue.  But it’s a non-renewable fossil fuel so using that must be bad for the planet, right?  Whatever you’re burning, you’re using up the precious oxygen supply in your home so clearly you need to do something about that.

Since there have been many products introduced about indoor air pollution, you are probably wondering if there is some major statement you can make about cleaning up your inner space.  The Government is strangling us with regulation after regulation to clean up the atmosphere over the US so why not do your part, right?  You could go the air freshener route but that doesn’t actually clean anything.  You could go for the ion based air purifiers but they are electrically powered and electricity has it’s own pollution problems at the plant.  Or there is the recent glut of articles about how wonderful certain indoor houseplants can be at cleaning the air and replenishing the oxygen supply all in one.  Perfect!

In September 1989, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) released the results of a 2-year study of the benefits of certain types of houseplants on interior living spaces.  The NASA objective was to discover the optimum properties of plants for the International Space Station (ISS).  The ISS of course is a sealed structure for use in outer space.  The study identified a number of harmful chemicals that various houseplants consume. Placing them in large sealed containers and then injecting the containers with a chemical and measuring the results over a 24-hour period tested hundreds of houseplants.  The chemical amounts, however, were 20 times higher than would be normally found in indoor atmospheres.  The results were very good, showing the abilities of a number of plants to remove these harmful chemicals from the air in the short time period.  Several species of Dracaena, Philodendron, Peace Lily, and Ivy performed the best.  The recommendation from this study is that there should be one 6” potted plant for every 100 square feet of indoor living space, in the ISS.

As you might have suspected, I have a small problem with all of this.  Do these plants remove these chemicals from the air? Absolutely.  Do these plants replenish the oxygen in the air? Absolutely.  But if you have 20 times the normal levels of any or all of these chemicals in your house you don’t need houseplants, you need to see a doctor right away.   Additionally, if your house is built so tight that no outside air leaks in around the doors, windows, or bathrooms, you deserve some kind of award for that.  The study was designed to provide solutions for the ISS but the data is now commonly being used as a selling point for inner air quality in houses that probably already get plenty of fresh air from under the front door and the upstairs bathroom window.  I think now we have a clearer idea as to why the ALCA was involved in the study.

If you live in Beaumont, TX then you have my condolences but you need these kinds of plants.  These chemicals are mostly produced through the refining process of crude oil.  If you can smell it in the air on your way to the 7-11 to get a pack of cigarettes, then you need to be doing something about it.  However, if you live in Colorado Springs, CO then you have my congratulations and you would be better off just opening your window once in a while to let some fresh air in.  Now for the unintended consequences part.

Because these plants are so good at removing all the toxic chemicals from the air, they are now toxic.  So if you have dogs, or cats, or gerbils, or bunnies, or whatever, you now have to make sure they don’t wander in and start munching.  Your little $10 plant could get pretty expensive in a hurry.

Look people, houseplants are nice.  You can talk to them and they like all kinds of music.  Some of them even produce beautiful blossoms and with some judicious choices you could have something in bloom almost all year long.  They even help to control the humidity in the house in both winter and summer.  They provide a marginal amount of oxygen and they remove a marginal amount of chemicals.  All this is good and I love them.  I have them everywhere in the house.  The Christmas and Easter cactus blooms are beautiful, the Peace Lily blooms almost all year, but the Dracaenas just sit there and demand water all the time.  When the Peace Lily blooms it drops pollen like no other plant I’ve ever seen.  So while you’re cleaning out the bad chemicals, you’re introducing a huge pollen count in a confined space.  If you’re looking for cleaner smelling air I would suggest putting little containers of baking soda around the house for winter or just open the windows once in a while in summer.

Enjoy your plants and try not to make a political statement out of it.

© J T Weaver, 02/07/2013

About J T Weaver

The author of "Uphill Both Ways," a thought provoking series of stories about life, family, and growing up.
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