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Plants help airtight buildings maintain clean air

Airtight buildings are growing more popular, and with lower heating and cooling costs it’s easy to see why.  

But high performance, super-insulated buildings are not without their disadvantages. Poor air quality, mold and mildew growth, and stuffy and stale air are all possible in airtight building environments.

Airtight buildings are also potentially hazardous if carbon monoxide, ozone, and toxic fumes from paints, carpets, and furniture accumulate throughout the building.

People in industrialized countries spend roughly 80 percent of their time indoors, and if air quality in airtight buildings is a cause for concern, it’s important to understand how to mitigate these risks and improve super-insulated homes and buildings.

One little-studied method with potential promise is using plants to improve indoor air quality in these self-contained environments.

Researchers from the National Research Council of Italy – Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection recently published a review in the journal Trends in Plant Science detailing how a better understanding of plant physiology could sustainably improve indoor air quality.

Plants can absorb toxins, increase humidity, and create oxygen by absorbing carbon dioxide.

However, when plants are chosen for indoor use, the main deciding factors tend to be appearance and how much maintenance the plants require.

To find out which plants will help clean the air in your home, see our in-depth feature on house plants that reduce air pollution.

“For most of us plants are just a decorative element, something aesthetic, but they are also something else,” said Frederico Brilli, who led the research.

In order to find out how plants can best improve air quality, further research is needed to study plant leaf size, shape, anatomy, and physiology, along with how quickly absorb carbon dioxide.

Research that, according to Brilli, is lacking save for some work done NASA in the 1980s.

The researchers also note that future plant research should delve into plant microbiomes which  aid in the plant’s ability to absorb toxins. Microbiomes are the collective populations of microorganisms that live in an environment, in this case, the bacteria and fungi that reside in the soil and on the plants.

The strategic placement of plants along with smart-sensor-controlled air cleaning technologies could drastically improve indoor air quality in super-insulated airtight buildings while still keeping energy costs down. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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