If you're looking to improve the quality of air in your home, potted plants are a good place to start. But not all indoor plants are created equal.
A new study has found that certain varieties actually do more than pump more oxygen into your surroundings - they can also clear the air of harmful chemicals.
The new study, conducted by researchers from the State University of New York, looked specifically for plants that had the ability to absorb volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which are potentially harmful pollutants that can come from paint, furniture, printers, dry-cleaned clothes, and other household products.
"Buildings, whether new or old, can have high levels of VOCs in them, sometimes so high that you can smell them," said study leader Vadoud Niri.
A high concentration of VOCs can lead to health problems such as dizziness, asthma, or allergies, but get the right plant on your desk or kitchen sideboard, and you could save yourself the trouble of installing extra ventilation.
While there's nothing new about the practice of using plants to clean air (technically known as biofiltration, or phytoremediation) Niri and his team conducted precise experiments to determine the efficiency and capabilities of five different types of houseplants - the jade plant, spider plant, bromeliad, dracaena, and Caribbean tree cactus.
Each plant was placed in an air-tight chamber with specific concentrations of several types of VOCs. By measuring the air quality over time, the researchers were able to see which did the best job of purifying the air.
The bromeliad plant got a gold star from the team, managing to clean up 80 percent of the pollutants in six of the eight VOCs tested. Others scored highly for certain pollutants: the dracaena absorbed 94 percent of the chemical acetone, used in nail polish remover.
Spider plants, meanwhile, were very fast at removing VOCs, starting work just a few minutes after being placed inside its container.
Niri was prompted to start his research after going into a nail salon and being put off by the smell, Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post. Now, he wants to test his plants in a real salon setting to see how effective they can be at dealing with VOCs when they're not in sealed containers.
It's important to note the new study hasn't yet been peer-reviewed or published at this stage, because the team is still refining their experiment. This means we can't read too much into the study until it's been independently verified, so don't go putting bromeliads in every square foot of your home based solely on these results just yet.
Another thing to note is that the extent of the links between VOCs and health problems have been debated in the past, but the evidence suggests there is at least some relationship between the air we breathe indoors and a number of particular medical issues.
What is certain is that VOC concentrations can be much higher indoors than outdoors.
Niri says houseplants could be a natural and effective way of keeping our air clean, and really, what have you got to lose by making your house look a bit more green?
"Each of us breathes over 3,000 gallons of air each day," he told the Post. "That's why air quality is extremely important and air pollution is an important environmental threat to human health."
The results of the study were presented at the 252nd National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS) in Philadelphia.