Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greener Air Cleaner

Now that vog has started to blanket the major metro area of the Hawaiian Islands, state lawmakers are suddenly making noise about the health risks of their constituents and talking about providing care for those with respiratory difficulties. Of course, we on Hawai'i island have been telling our friends and relatives on O'ahu about how bad the vog is for years, but on the Big Island our wheels don’t squeak as loud as they do in Honolulu. I saw what the worst day of vog looked like in Honolulu recently, and all I can say about you city folks is…you guys are amateurs. Sorry, but try going for a morning run around Lili'uokalani Park when the vog is so thick you can’t even see the Hamakua side of Hilo Bay. Guarantee you’ll turn pro, or reach for some meds, or skedaddle to an air-conditioned mall.

So what really can be done to improve air quality that’s been compromised by vog? Not much it seems, except reduce human activity. On bad air days especially, you can cut down on driving, don’t mow the lawn or use other small gas powered engines to manicure your yard, don’t barbecue. But what about indoors? Health officials advise us to keep our windows and doors closed on high vog days. If you work in an air-conditioned building with windows that don’t open, that choice has already been made for you. However, such tightly enclosed spaces may also harbor high levels of air pollutants from the off-gassing of synthetic materials used in furniture, carpets, building materials, electronic equipment and more.

Luckily, there is a cheap, naturally green solution to clean air indoors: Houseplants. Sure, you think I’m just saying this because I’m a container gardening freak. Nope – there is indeed solid scientific research that was done in NASA's International Space Station that shows the benefits of houseplants on indoor air quality. Plants actually absorb volatile compounds from the air through their leaves and break them down in their roots, thus purifying the air. Amazing!

University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture professor and landscape architect Dr. Andrew Kaufman recently co-authored a helpful and informative extension publication on using houseplants to clean indoor air that you can download here.

The bulletin includes a list of houseplants with ratings of effectiveness from 1 to 10, 10 being excellent. Nothing listed scores a 10, but those plants receiving a rating of 9 include:

Bamboo palm
Boston fern
Dwarf date palm
English ivy
Florist’s mum
Gerbera daisy
Kimberley queen fern
Rubber plant
More important than ratings, however, is to choose something low maintenance if you lead a busy life, and if it appeals to you aesthetically you’re more likely to pay attention to it and keep it alive. Although there haven’t been any studies done on them yet, native Hawaiian houseplants such as papala kepau, ‘ala ‘ala wainui, and palapalai probably help clear the air, too. A Sharper Image ionizer might be more effective, but my greener air cleaners are hundreds of dollars cheaper. And, as my 80-year-old gardening guru says, “Plants are very forgiving.” Though I think if my neglected but still thriving Ficus benjimina and the peace lily in my living room could talk, I'm sure they'd have me arrested for houseplant abuse.


Lucy Jones said...

I love house plants, but I've had to give up on them because my cat eats them. Any suggestions? I've simply concentrated on getting my outside plants to grow. Yes, we're getting eaten alive with vog down here in HOVE!

Janice said...

Lucy, it's true, cats eat the weirdest things. JB Friday, UH extension agent, told me his cat even ate the new shoots of some palapalai ferns he was propagating for a native plant fundraiser for his church! One solution is to hang your plants, if you can. Good luck!