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What Plants Are Best For Air Purification?

Air purification is a crucial aspect of maintaining a healthy indoor environment. Over the years, various plants have been touted as "air-purifying plants," claiming to improve the air quality of our indoor spaces. However, the truth is that there is no plant that is inherently better at purifying the air than another. This misconception stems from the idea that plants themselves purify the air, which is not accurate. It is, in fact, the microbes that live in the plant root zone that breakdown and metabolize toxins commonly found indoors.

Selection of houseplants

The Role of Microbes in Air Purification

Microbial Mechanisms

Microorganisms, particularly bacteria and fungi, are known to play a significant role in the breakdown of pollutants. They are capable of metabolizing a wide range of toxins, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are commonly found in indoor air. These microbes are present in the root zone of plants, where they form a symbiotic relationship with the plant. 

Factors Affecting Microbial Activity

The activity of these microbes is influenced by various factors, such as temperature, humidity, and the availability of pollutants. Some microbes are more efficient at breaking down specific pollutants, while others may be more effective at removing a broad spectrum of contaminants. As a result, the efficiency of air purification depends on the particular microbial population present in the root zone.

Another factor to consider is the microorganisms access to airborne pollutants. With traditional potted plants, the roots and microbes are covered in soil and the air around the soil is typically stagnant. These factors restrict the microbes ability to purify the air. In a biofilter system, the roots are typically exposed to the indoor air, such as in a hydroponic setting, and the system actively circulates the air through the root zone of the plants. This optimizes the plant's natural ability to purify the air.

Hydroponic plant with exposed roots

Debunking the Myth of Air-Purifying Plants

Misinterpretation of Research

The misconception that certain plants are better at purifying the air than others likely originated from a misinterpretation of scientific research. Many studies have investigated the ability of plants to remove pollutants from the air. However, these studies were often executed in a vacuum and are not effectively replicable in our standard indoor spaces.

Furthermore, the popular press may have cherry-picked data or extrapolated findings to make eye-catching headlines. This has led to the widespread belief that some plants are inherently better air purifiers than others, which is not the case.

The Importance of Microbes

As we have discussed, it is the microbes living in the root zone, not the plants themselves, that are responsible for breaking down and removing pollutants from the air. All plants have the potential to support microbial communities in their root zones, and these microbes can vary depending on the specific plant species and other environmental factors. Therefore, no plant is inherently "better" at purifying the air than another.

Hydroponic plant from Respira

Hydroponic Environments and Air Purification

Benefits of Hydroponics

Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil, and instead using a nutrient-rich water solution to deliver nutrients directly to the plants' roots. This method offers several advantages, including more efficient use of water, faster growth rates, and increased control over nutrient levels. In the context of air purification, hydroponic systems may also support a diverse range of microbes in the root zone and provide an unobstructed access of airborne pollutants to the microbial communities, potentially enhancing the air-purifying capabilities.

Selecting Plants for Hydroponic Systems

When choosing plants for a hydroponic system, it is essential to consider factors such as the plants' growth habits, nutrient requirements, and compatibility with the hydroponic system.

In conclusion, there is no plant that is inherently better at purifying the air than another. The key to effective air purification lies in the microbes present in the plant root zone, which breakdown and metabolize pollutants in the air. By understanding the role of microbes in air purification and optimizing the conditions for their growth and activity, it is possible to harness the power of plants and their microbial partners to create healthier indoor environments.

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