As if Louisiana and other gulf coast residents didn’t already have enough to worry about from the catastrophic oil spill, new reports are indicating that the very air they breathe has become a health threat. Air quality samples have found levels of sulphur dioxide, benzene and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) anywhere from 100 to 1000 times the maximum levels considered safe. One place Gulf Coast residents may look to find considerable relief from VOCs in their homes and offices is their local organic nurseries where they can find indoor plants that are proven natural toxin removers.
The Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN) recently evaluated the EPA’s air content and quality testing results in Venice Beach, Louisiana. LEAN found hydrogen sulfide content of up to 1,192 parts per billion. LEAN and other agencies have also found extremely elevated levels of other VOCs, most notably cancer causing benzene. The highest levels of benzene detected to date were on April 30, at 3,084 ppb, following by May 2, at 3,416 ppb. Louisiana’s ambient air standard for the VOC benzene is 3.76 ppb.
All VOCs are highly toxic to humans and physical reactions from exposure to these gases include:
- Irritation of eyes, nose or throat
- Coughing or difficulty breathing
- Nausea or vomiting
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Memory damage
- Ocular damage
- Neurological damage
- Death (at very high levels)
Scores of residents and clean up workers have already been reported as suffering from spill-related symptoms. Louisiana’s Health Secretary Alan Levine told CBS News there have been 75 people so far reporting spill-related symptoms in Louisiana. CNN has reported that an additional 15 cases have been reported in Alabama.
The good news is that common indoor plants may offer considerable improvement for the air in homes and offices. In the late 1980s, NASA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) spent two years testing common house plants for their ability to remove the volatile organic compounds benzene, trichloroethylene and formaldehyde from the air. The study found that all of the plants were useful, with some houseplants capable of removing as much as 87 percent of indoor air pollutants within 24 hours. The plants the study found effective were:
- Bamboo or Reed Palm
- Elephant Ear Philodendron
- Chinese Evergreen
- Cornstalk Dracaena
- English Ivy
- Gerbera Daisy
- Golden Pothos
- Heartleaf Philodendron
- Janet Craig Dracaena
- Peace Lily
- Red-edged Dracaena
- Selloum Philodendron
- Snake Plant
- Spider Plant
- Warneck Dracaena
- Weeping Fig
Though the study was limited to only three common VOC pollutants, it is believed that the same indoor plants should also be effective against other VOCs, including sulphur dioxide. The plants, which were found to be most effective for benzene removal were: English Ivy, Dracaena marginata, Janet Craig, Warneckei, Chrysanthemum, Gerbera Daisy, Peace lily.
Besides the benefits of eliminating toxins from the air, plants are a source of oxygen, they have been found to elevate mood as well as productivity and they reduce fatigue, coughs, sore throats and other cold-related illnesses by more than 30 percent, partially by increasing humidity levels and decreasing dust.
In addition to houseplants, carbon air filters in combination with HEPA filters are very good for removing VOCs and other pollutants from indoor air. Activated carbon filters in particular are effective at eliminating sulphur dioxide in both air and water. Sulphur dioxide is commonly referred to as "rotten egg gas" due to its distinctive odor.
Note: organic nurseries are preferred sources of all plants since commercial nurseries frequently use malathion and other pesticides.
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