If your indoor air smells all bottled up, and acrid fumes give you sore eyes and throat, dizziness or nausea, it's likely from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that "offgass" from cleaning products, pesticides, paints, perfumes, pressed woods, carpets...oh, and nitrous dioxide from gas stoves and fireplaces. Indoor air concentrations of VOCs can be up to 10 times higher than out of doors, says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Quickest remedy? Open a window. Then call in the plant squad.

Green plants are superheroes. Not only do they absorb carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas, and produce oxygen, but they also do some heavy cleaning by hoovering VOCs out of indoor air.  Potted plants were found to reduce toxic VOCs by 10-20 percent in ventilated spaces, and by 100 percent in enclosed chambers, researchers at The University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, have found.  At times when you need to run the air conditioner and must keep windows and doors closed to save energy, plants can really help you breathe easier.

In various studies, the following plants have demonstrated VOC-vanquishing skills:

Boston ferns 

Peace lilies

Kentia and Areca palms


Janet Craig (dracaena deremensis)

Devil's ivy 

Weeping fig (a variety of ficus tree)

We say, don't sweat it:  Go for anything green that suits your fancy! The more the merrier (and the cleaner the air), but don't feel compelled to turn your home into a forest:  One plant per hundred square feet, or strategically placed on, say, a particleboard desk, should do it.

When transplanting, use a nice compost-fortified potting soil.

For a summary of the Australia study, click here

For the latest on VOCs from pressed woods, click here.

This article originally appeared in Plenty in May 2008. The story was moved to MNN.com.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Green your indoor air with plants
Take a breath of fresh air once you fill your home with indoor plants.