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Do Plants Really Remove VOCs from Indoor Air?

Photo by Kaufmann Mercantile on Unsplash

I regularly see healthy-living experts touting the use of houseplants to clean indoor air.  Unfortunately, most research does not support this claim.  I have a lot of plants in my home because I appreciate their aesthetic value.  I hope that they contribute some small benefit to my home’s air quality but I don’t rely on them to do the job.  Let’s look at the facts to see if there are benefits and perhaps even risks to filling your home with potted plants.


The idea that plants are effective at removing VOCs from indoor air stems from a 1989 NASA study that tested different types of houseplants in a sealed chamber.  The testing methodology was designed to simulate the small, air-tight environment of a space capsule.  The study found that under these conditions, some plant types were particularly effective at removing VOCs including formaldehyde and benzene.


Subsequent studies have shown that the results do not translate to a typical house.  The size of a house and the amount of ventilation play a big role in the how much impact a plant will have on air quality.  A 1991 EPA review of the NASA study determined that a typical house would require 680 plants to yield the same results.  A 2019 review of 30 years of research determined that it would take 10 to 1000 plants per square meter of floor space to provide more effective cleaning power than opening a couple of windows.


If you do choose to have houseplants in your home make sure you are not adding VOC pollution.


  • Use untreated metal, clay or ceramic pots.

One study found that 11 different volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) were emitted into the air from plastic pots.


  • Buy organic plants, grown without pesticides.

Pesticides used in the plant production process can have volatile emissions.


  • Make sure your plants are not a source of mold.

Regularly check the soil for signs of mold.


If you see a recommendation to use houseplants to clean your air make sure you understand the source behind the recommendation and determine if this is new data that factors in a typical home environment or if it is simply advice based on outdated research.

How to Minimize Odor and Off-Gassing from Paint

Photo by Theme Photos on Unsplash

A reader submitted a question to Toxic Free Q&A about how to minimize lingering odor from zero-VOC paint.  Andy Pace, from The Green Design Center, wrote in with a comment that was so helpful I want to share it with everyone.


According to Andy, “Lingering odor is almost always caused by moisture trapped in the coatings. As the moisture comes out, it carries with it the chemical footprint of where it was, which usually means, a distinct aroma of resins and solvents. It’s true that the BM Regal is zero-VOC, but the biggest reason why the Behr paint is problematic may have to do with the color. Most people apply dark colors way too heavy…trying to get a nice thick coat so it appears to cover well. This is counterproductive. Water based paint needs to go on very thin in order to cure properly. Thick coats will cause lingering odors and a softer film. So, dark colors will be more prone to long lasting odors than will off white colors, no matter the product line. At this point, adding another layer or two of product will only prolong the situation. Get a large fan and direct it towards the offending surface. This will help wick away the moisture. Use a dehumidifier in that room. As a last resort, wipe the surface gently with isopropyl alcohol (or a cheap vodka) and just let the alcohol evaporate naturally. As it evaporates, it will pull moisture out of the paint.”


This advice is helpful whether you have a room you have already painted or if you plan to paint in the future.


Tips for Minimizing Off-Gassing from Paint


  • Start with zero-VOC paints that are also free of solvents, biocides or fungicides. Recommended brands are AFM Safecoat and ECOS.
  • Apply water-based paint in very thin coats.
  • Allow 2-4 hours for paint to dry between coats.
    • Water-based paints cure from the outside-in, so the surface will feel dry first. Make sure you allow enough time for each coat to dry before applying another coat.
  • Use a large fan to help wick away moisture.
  • Run a dehumidifier in the room being painted.
  • If necessary, wipe the surface gently with isopropyl alcohol and let it evaporate.


I highly recommend The Green Design Center if you are looking for non-toxic building supplies. Andy and his team also specialize in helping people with MCS find building supplies that are well-tolerated.  Check out his podcast too!

Wet Room Floor

Question from Marilyn

I’m planning to redo a bathroom with an open shower. The contractor tells me it involves some kind of hot tar layer to make the floor water proof before laying tile. Do you know of a non-toxic option that meets California code?

Lisa’s Answer


I am not familiar with California code so you will need to work with your contractor on that.  I have used Hardibacker Board or another water-resistant cementitious board as an underlayment for the tile.  I recommend the book “Prescriptions for a Healthy Home, 3rd edition” for any building or remodel project that you have.


Reading an SDS for Tile

Question from Marilyn

I’ve been trying to verify content of tiles for a shower remodel. It took several days, but Daltile sent me an SDS for their 4″x4″ glossy white tile in the Restore line. I’ve been unable to get any SDS for the 4″ white Daltile tile sold at Home Depot. Neither company seems to offer it.

In the meantime, I’ve been impressed by Florida Tile’s longstanding eco efforts, their GreenGuard and GreenSquared certifications, and their philanthropy in both Appalachia and in Haiti. I’m wondering if your site has reviewed their products at all.

I emailed Florida Tile about their 4″ square arctic white matte tile. The SDS says: “Hazardous constituents: N/A.” Quoted from email I received from Chris Dobbs
Director of Quality and Technical Services at Florida Tile…

“There is no lead, barium, chromium, cobalt, or nickel in these products. There is Zinc Oxide and Magnesium Oxide, but not Zinc or Magnesium as anything other than a compound. If the tiles it would not be releasing the individual components but it would be releasing ceramic dust which can cause some issues if proper PPE and cutting methods are not utilized. Ceramic dust is still uniquely ceramic and not some portion of its individual components.”


“Ceramic tile is considered a single component as a result of the vitrification process that occurs during the kiln at extremely high heat. Once the tiles have been fired, no individual components are made available from the finished product.”

Lisa’s Answer


I was not able to open the file you sent but in general tile is safe to use.  There are concerns about cutting the tile as the dust can be harmful.  Lead is a particular element of concern from cutting, however, most will have trace amounts due to contamination and not as an added ingredient.  Once the tile is cut, lead will not emit into the air.  Cutting tile outdoors is advised.  Read more here for additional information.

Toxic Exposure Testing Kits

Question from Riley

I’m on the search for reliable tests to sample exposure in my home.

I have been spending a lot of time online trying to find the best most trusted companies, but that is hard these days.

Wondering if you have a sought out trusted company and/or specific tests that are affordable, and accessible? I’m primarily looking for- heavy metals, phthalates, molds, radon, EMF’S, and asbestos.

Thank you for your time and your impactful efforts to our people’s health.

Lisa’s Answer


I recommend working with a certified expert from the Building Biology Institute.  You can look for one in your area using the link.

Obasan Mattresses

Question from Lauren

Can you tell me anything about Obasan mattresses. I read on another website that they are a great choice but haven’t been able to find much info about them otherwise however they look promising. I have been doing so much research on mattresses and am really having trouble making a decision. What is your opinion on metal springs and EMFs? Thank you so much for any advice you can offer!

Lisa’s Answer


I have no personal experience with Obasan but based on what they have on their website its sounds like a good option.  They have GOTS certified organic cotton and wool and GOLS certified natural rubber.  They don’t say anything about factory certification, however.  I would need to learn more about their process.

Naturpedic is my favorite mattress brand because they use only the most natural materials at every step of manufacture.  Their factory is certified along with the materials they use.  You can read more about it here. Naturpedic also has mattresses with no coils.

The topic of EMF in bed coils is a complicated one with many conflicting viewpoints.  I am not an EMF expert but based on what I have read I do not think mattress coils are a concern.

Coil Springs in Mattresses

Question from Mary

I have Naturepedic beds in my house and we had a emf specialist come and a few of the beds have a magnetic charge that he said would be coming from the steel coils in the mattress. What are your thoughts on this? Are there any latex no coil mattress’ you recommend. Thank you!

Lisa’s Answer


Naturpedic has mattresses with no coils.  Naturpedic is my favorite mattress brand because they use only the most natural materials at every step of manufacture.  You can read more about it here.

The topic of EMF in bed coils is a complicated one with many conflicting viewpoints.  I am not an EMF expert but based on what I have read I do not think mattress coils are a concern.

Acrylic, Wood Veneer, or Wood Composite

Question from Lanny

I am desperately searching for a bed tray to use for my laptop. I need it for those days when I am in bed from MCS & Fibro.  I have found three options and would like your opinion on the least toxic. (I realize unfinished wood would be ideal but there is no such thing, plus I do have problems with pine.)




Lisa’s Answer

Unfortunately, there is not a clear answer based on the information provided.  All three will have chemical emissions.  The acrylic is made from petrochemicals.  The wood veneer will have adhesives and probably a lacquer finish.  The wood/wood composite will also have adhesives, stain and possibly a lacquer finish.  You would need to understand the content of the adhesive, stains and lacquers to know how toxic they are.

I would not recommend any of these, particularly for use in your bedroom.

Ashley Furniture

Question from Kristina

Please help! I just moved a chaise up to my bedroom, and after 90 degree heat in No. CA this week, my furniture seems to be reeking of that same smell I smelled when it was new!!
I’m so worried now that I’ve been “poisoning” my family with this furniture!! Just read many horrible reviews of Ashley Furniture!!! 🙁
I’m getting rid of it ASAP.
Can you refer a safe furniture manufacturer?
We bought this large sectional from Ashley in June of 2018, and have been moving it around lately. I wonder if I’ve rekindled these horrible chemicals?
Thanks for any help you can offer!!


Lisa’s Answer

I just wrote a post on the chemicals in upholstered furniture.  You can read it here.  I can’t tell you specifically what is in your piece but upholstered furniture can off-gas indefinitely.  The heat can accelerate the off-gassing but just because you were not smelling it before does not mean it was not off-gassing.  Debra’s List has several non-toxic furniture makers.

Car Seat Cover

Question from Kristina

Any recommendations on non toxic seat covers for the car? Im seeing a lot of “p65” products which I didn’t even notice before


Lisa’s Answer

Here is a previous response to this question from Debra.


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