Researchers demonstrated that a genetically modified household plant could effectively reduce the levels of several common indoor air pollutants.
Many of us go to great lengths to keep the air clean in our homes. We vacuum, sweep, and install air filters to clear out allergens and get rid of dust.
But unfortunately, many of the hazardous particles in our homes are too tiny for conventional filters to catch.
Now, researchers from the University of Washington genetically modified the pothos ivy — a popular houseplant — to help get the job done.
The modified plants are able to sufficiently remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as benzene and chloroform, from the air in homes at useful rates, according to a new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
In order to create a plant that could remove toxic particles from the air, the research team decided to use a protein called cytochrome P450 2E1, also known as “2E1” or “green liver.”
2E1 is present in the livers of mammals. It helps break down chemicals like benzene and chloroform so they can exit the body. 2E1 is best known for helping the body process alcohol.
The researchers developed a synthetic version of the gene that produces 2E1 and introduced it to pothos ivy so that each cell in the houseplant would express the protein.
To test how well the modified plants detoxified air compared to regular pothos ivy, the team put each type of plant into a glass tube and inserted either benzene or chloroform gas.
Over the course of 11 days, the researchers measured the levels of pollutants in each tube.
Within three days, the concentration of chloroform dropped by 82 percent with the modified plants. By six days, it was nearly undetectable.
After eight days, the benzene concentration in the tubes with the modified plants had decreased by approximately 75 percent.
Meanwhile, the concentration of the gases in the unmodified plants stayed the same throughout the study.
Many hazardous compounds are emitted from everyday household products, such as paints, varnishes, and tobacco smoke, along with several cleaning and cosmetic products.
When we use these products, we expose ourselves to high pollutant levels, states the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These chemicals can linger in the air for hours and have harmful consequences to our health.
“The concentration of VOCs is estimated to be 10 times higher indoors than outdoors. Many of these compounds are dangerous and are either known or suspected to cause cancer,” said Cedrina Calder, MD, a preventive medicine doctor in Nashville, Tennessee.
In addition to cancer, exposure to VOCs can lead to eye and throat irritation as well as liver and kidney damage, says the EPA. It may also cause dizziness, fatigue, and nausea.
“Air pollution is a major contributing factor in diseases, including cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases such as asthma, and potentially brain development in children,” said Luz Claudio, PhD, a tenured professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.
“We have better control of the environment inside our homes, so it’s worth having clean air indoors as much as possible,” Claudio said.
It’s important to note that these effects have mostly been associated with high levels of exposure.
Although pothos ivy can survive in all types of conditions and is very effective at purifying air, many people and pets are allergic to the plant.
If you experience symptoms of an allergic reaction — such as burning, skin irritation, or swelling of the lips, tongue, or throat — seek medical attention and consider another air-cleaning solution, such as activated carbon filters.
Areca palm, lady palm, bamboo palm, and rubber plant have also been proven to effectively remove VOCs in buildings, Claudio says.
In general, to improve indoor air quality, it’s a good idea to increase the flow of outdoor air into your home, reduce humidity, and keep the area free of allergens and pathogens by frequently vacuuming and cleaning.
The EPA also recommends storing hazardous products in well-ventilated areas and discarding paint supplies and fuels immediately after use.