04/11/2016 11:57 EDT | Updated 04/12/2017 05:12 EDT

Planting A Natural Way To Clean Indoor Air

Although we may gain a sense of comfort from being indoors, the act of being separated from the external environment may come with a cost in the form on air pollution. Without proper ventilation, the indoor world can become a rather toxic place due to several chemical and biological factors.

Woman watering plant by window in home
ULTRA F via Getty Images
Woman watering plant by window in home

Most Canadians probably do not know the name Hans Selye but his work in this country stands out as one of the most important in our everyday lives. He is better known as the "Father" of stress research. He examined the effect of this common phenomenon and revealed how our bodies tend to react, both in the short term and the long.

Selye's work sparked a revolution in which researchers aimed to explore the causes, and more importantly, the effects of a variety of stressors. The branches ventured into a variety of health-related fields and the results showed the experience could be both good and harmful. In the 1970s, the focus turned from our external world to the one in which we find ourselves daily: the indoor environment.

Although we may gain a sense of comfort from being indoors, the act of being separated from the external environment may come with a cost in the form on air pollution. Without proper ventilation, the indoor world can become a rather toxic place due to several chemical and biological factors. While many may be aware of the physiological implications, researchers have known for decades there may also be troublesome psychological effects.

The problems associated with indoor air pollution have been examined at length and shown the best route to resolution is through introduction of external air (aka opening the windows). Yet, the actual development of indoor structures has mostly gone against this rule. Not surprisingly, a new problem has emerged as a result of this lack of ventilation appreciation. We know it as sick building syndrome, or SBS.

Research into SBS proved the problem to be difficult to resolve. The only options appeared to be restoration of ventilation or the inclusion of expensive air filtration devices. For most companies, these routes were simply not feasible.

Then in 1989, researchers at NASA came up with a relatively cost-effective option already employed in many offices and homes. They suggested the answer was simply to bring plants into the environment. Based on their analyses, the roots of the plants could potentially offer a natural means to improve air quality through a process known as phytoremediation.

Over the years that followed, plants were tested for their ability to remove a variety of pollutants. As shown by the NASA team, the roots were able to efficiently isolate the chemicals so they couldn't float freely in the air. More importantly, several microbial species living with the plants could actually break down these chemicals. Together, the symbiosis of plant and bacteria seemed to be the best option.

But there was one slight issue. Plants may be effective at cleaning the air but in the context of a room, the actual contact volume was quite low. For full effect, a room would have to be turned into a garden or a jungle to be effective. Although this may suit those with green thumbs, as a widely-implementable option, it simply doesn't work.

But there may now be an answer to this dilemma. Last week, a new concept in air pollution reduction known as Clairy was unveiled by a trio of green-minded individuals. Their invention is a rather unique means to increase the potential of a plant to remediate the air. It's a potted plant housed with a fan that sends air not out, but in.

To learn more about the device and more importantly, if it works, I reached out to Paolo Ganis. He's the Co-Founder of Clairy and a true environmentalist at heart. For him, plants have always provided the best option in today's sealed windows society.

"Phytoremediation is an excellent way to mitigate environment pollutions, such as in air, water and soil pollution in virtue of plants, more often than not, combined with their associated microorganisms. This concept has been widely applied to treat pollutants in soil and water. Clairy offers us the opportunity to use the whole plant, from roots to shoots."

Ganis points out that the isolation and breakdown of pollutants isn't the only one way plants can improve air quality. In tests conducted on Clairy, he's revealed there's so much more happening.

"Most plants can perform isolation, phytostabilization, and degradation. But the higher volume, thanks to forced ventilation, actually promotes a phenomenon known as phytoextraction. It's when the plant takes up pollutants into its shoots and then degrades the chemicals naturally."

But knowing the mechanisms behind Clairy's ability to clean the air is not all Ganis has done to prove his point. He has also collaborated with Firenze University to put his device to the test. The study focuses on the ability of the system to reduce the levels of air pollutants. As Ganis proudly reveals, the results are quite impressive.

"We took a heavy polluted room with 0.2 parts per million (ppm) of Formaldehyde. This is about twice the concentration found in normal indoor environments based on the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In a matter of 30 hours, that level was reduced by 80% to under 0.05 ppm. The effect was immediate. We could see a reduction in pollutant levels within a minute of introducing the system."

The tests were conducted in a controlled environment but Ganis wasn't happy with that. He wanted to see if his system could work even better. To do this, he used a non-commercial potting soil with improved filtering ability. As he found out, the results were even more impressive. "With our filtering soil, we raised the number to 93 per cent in our tests."

The Clairy system is currently being offered through the crowdfunding site, Kickstarter. However, based on experimental results, the concept may gain enough attention to validate widespread attention. In light of the concerns over indoor air quality, this natural means to help reduce pollutants may one day become commonplace in homes and offices.

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