Nice particleboard desk. Put a plant on that thing already.


Plants are wonderful things. In some ways, they’re like a really great mom: they clean up all sorts of messes and they make you feel good. But unlike your mom, plants suck up carbon dioxide, thereby doing more than we humans are to clean up this little “whoops” we created called global warming. They can also suck up formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxic chemicals that exist at low levels in pretty much every indoor environment, including your apartment.

Why do you have such nasty things in your home, you wonder? Well, formaldehyde is often used in pressed wood products, like the kind that your crappy particleboard desk is made of, and in some textile finishes, among other things. (It’s also in cigarette smoke. Don’t smoke.) Benzene is present in the home in paints, furniture waxes, glues, and other products. Both chemicals leach into the air over time, thus the low levels in your home.

Why should you care? Benzene and formaldehyde are allergens, and they also cause cancer, so it’s generally a good idea to limit your exposure to the stuff.

Certain houseplants break down these harmful substances and there are science geeks out there who have figured out which ones do it best. The big winner? The lowly Boston fern. So go get a houseplant and learn to take care of yourself and something other than yourself all at the same time.

Pick one of these for optimal poison-sucking:

Boston fern (planet Earth’s #1 formaldehyde-sucker)
Areca palm
Lady palm
Bamboo palm
English ivy
Janet Craig
Rubber plant

More on the science behind plants and their powers. More on why formaldehyde is bad and even more here. More on why benzene is bad.

Laura Wright is the senior editor at OnEarth magazine, a publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council.