science of us

My Tiny Green Servants Aren’t Even Doing Their One Job?

Photo: Simon Watson/Getty Images

It’s a dark week for plant-lovers. Or, it’s a dark week for people who like the idea of having a horde of air-filtering servants: Apparently houseplants don’t clean the air nearly as much as we think they do. I’m looking at my little office-desk succulent that I got from Trader Joe’s. Are you serious? What are you even doing over there? Just looking cute? Okay, I’m sorry.

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer takes a deep dive into what our houseplants are actually doing to the air inside our homes and offices, and the answer seems to be: not much. He comes away with some especially damning statements from plant experts: “The scientific literature shows that indoor houseplants … do very little to clean the air,” said one. “My view is even harsher than that,” said another: “I do not think that houseplants clean the air.” The final nail: “A resounding ‘no.’” They don’t clean the air “any more than an old pair of socks or baseball cap that I would hang on the wall.” (!)

Wow. The belief that plants are filtering and purifying the air around us can be traced to a 1989 NASA study showing that indoor plants do in fact help reduce volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) in small, sealed spaces, such as onboard NASA missions. (VOCs are tiny particles emitted from things like paint, nail polish, cleaning products, and anything scented, essentially. Not all VOCs are dangerous, but they can contribute to a spectrum of ailments, ranging from nausea and headache to heart attacks and cancer.) But for plants to clean the air in any meaningful way, Meyer writes, you’d have to have at least one per square foot, or roughly the density of a plant store. So, why have plants at all then?

“Joy,” Meyer writes. He claims to still love his own plants, “even if they [don’t] make my apartment’s air any cleaner.”

It’s true that houseplants are peaceful and attractive. They also lift the spirits and ward off loneliness: My own two don’t really match — one is a snake plant from Amazon, and the other is a poinsettia from the hardware store — but even if little air purification is going on, it does feel like the three of us are a weird interspecies team. That they haven’t died gives me hope, although maybe that’s a human-centric way of thinking about it.

My Tiny Green Servants Aren’t Even Doing Their One Job?