Use Plants to Remove Toxins

Is your living space giving you 'sick building syndrome'? Treat it with a collection of plants that absorb toxic chemicals. They're good for your soul - and good for your health.

In the drive to make our homes energy-efficient we have become better at sealing the indoors from the outdoors to keep temperatures even and lighten the load on the energy systems used to heat and cool our houses. However, this can lead to poor indoor air quality and our health can suffer from the build-up of toxins inside our homes.

The CSIRO estimates that the cost of poor indoor air quality in Australia may be as high as $12 billion per year (Brown, 1998). In recent years, comparative risk studies performed by the US EPA and its Science Advisory Board have consistently ranked indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health (US EPA, 1993).

The indoor pollutants that affect our health are formaldehyde, volatile organic compounds (benzene and trichloroethylene or TCE), airborne biological pollutants, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, pesticides and disinfectants (phenols) and radon. These pollutants contribute to 'sick building syndrome', which causes symptoms ranging from allergies, headaches and fatigue through to nervous-system disorders, cancer and death.

Fortunately, the boffins at NASA have found that plants and the microbes at their roots can, through their normal photosynthetic process, absorb these pollutants and provide the fresh air and humidity that makes us healthier. Their research identified a collection of easy-to-grow indoor plants that, if we cease to bring new toxins into the home (see "Use Non-toxic Cleaners" action), can remedy 'sick building syndrome' and make your home a palace of respiratory health.

How to do it now!

Deck out your house and office with a collection of the following plants and breathe easy.

Top ten plants for removing formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from the air:

  1. Areca Palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens) – semi-sun

  2. Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa) – semi-sun

  3. Bamboo Palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii) – semi-sun

  4. Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta) – semi-sun to semi-shade

  5. Dracaena “Janet Craig” (Dracaena deremensis “Janet Craig”) – semi-shade

  6. Philodendron (Philodendron sp.) - semi-shade

  7. Dwarf Date Palm (Phoenix roebelenii) – semi-sun

  8. Ficus Alii (Ficus macleilandii “Alii”) – full sun & semi-sun

  9. Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata “Bostoniensis) – semi-sun

  10. Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum "Mauna Loa") - semi-shade

For more information on indoor air quality try the following websites and resources:

Why is this action important?

This action will improve your health and the health of your family, colleagues and housemates. Putting these plants in your home or office will minimise the build up of the following toxic chemicals that contribute to 'sick building syndrome'.


Sources: Pressed wood products (hardwood, plywood wall panelling, particleboard, fibreboard) and furniture made with these pressed wood products; urea-formaldehyde foam insulation (UFFI); combustion sources and environmental tobacco smoke; durable press drapes and other textiles; glues

Health Impacts: Eye, nose, and throat irritation, wheezing and coughing, fatigue, skin rash, asthma, severe allergic reactions. May cause cancer.


Sources: Paints, paint strippers and other solvents; wood preservatives; aerosol sprays; cleansers and disinfectants; moth repellents; air fresheners

Health impacts: Repeated skin contact with benzene will cause drying, inflammation, blistering and dermatitis. Acute inhalation of high levels of benzene has been reported to cause dizziness, weakness, euphoria, headache, nausea, blurred vision, respiratory diseases, tremors, irregular heartbeat, liver and kidney damage, paralysis and unconsciousness.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Sources: Metal degreasers; dry cleaners; printing inks; paints; lacquers; varnishes; adhesives

Health impacts: Eye, nose and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system. Believed to cause liver cancer in humans.

Airborne biological pollutants

Sources: Mould; dust mites; pet dander (skin flakes); droppings and body parts from cockroaches, rodents and other pests or insects; viruses; bacteria

Health impacts: Some biological contaminants trigger allergic reactions, including hypersensitivity pneumonitis, allergic rhinitis and some types of asthma. Infectious illnesses such as influenza, measles and chicken pox are transmitted through the air. Moulds and mildews release disease-causing toxins. Symptoms of health problems caused by biological pollutants include sneezing, watery eyes, coughing, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy, fever and digestive problems.

Carbon monoxide, Nitrogen dioxide

Sources: Unvented kerosene and gas space heaters; leaking chimneys and furnaces; back-drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves, and fireplaces; gas stoves; generators and other gasoline powered equipment; automobile exhaust from attached garages; tobacco smoke.

Health impacts: At low concentrations, carbon monoxide causes fatigue in healthy people and chest pain in people with heart disease. At higher concentrations, it causes impaired vision and coordination; headaches; dizziness; confusion and nausea. Nitrogen dioxide causes eye, nose, and throat irritation. It may cause impaired lung function and increased respiratory infections in young children.


Sources: Products used to kill household pests (insecticides, termiticides, and disinfectants); products used on lawns and gardens that drift or are tracked inside the house

Health impacts: Irritation to eye, nose, and throat; damage to central nervous system and kidneys; increased risk of cancer. 

Disinfectants (phenols, which include biphenyl, phenolics and the preservative pentachloraphenol)

Sources: Disinfectants; antiseptics; perfumes; mouthwashes; glues; air fresheners

Health impacts: Skin, eyes and mucous membrane irritation. At lethal doses it causes irregular breathing, muscle weakness and tremors, loss of coordination, convulsions, coma and respiratory arrest.


Nature helps to protect us from environmental toxins. By working with nature to clean up our increasingly toxic homes, we will enjoy the benefits  in our wider environment every day.


The health and wellbeing benefits from reducing your daily exposure to the chemicals associated with 'sick building syndrome' can be measured in less respiratory ailments and may prevent the onset of more serious conditions. As an added bonus, these plants are beautiful adornments to any room.