The first time Vadoud Niri walked into a nail salon, he quickly had to walk straight out.
"I went with my wife and couldn’t handle it," he said. "You could smell all the VOCs," or volatile organic compounds — pollutants like acetone, formaldehyde and toluene that easily become gases and pollute indoor air.
Niri, a chemist at the State University of New York at Oswego, knew that if he could smell these compounds in the air, it probably wasn't great to be breathing it. So when he got back to his lab, he started looking for ways to mitigate the pollutants' noxious effects.
On Wednesday, at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society, he's presenting his surprisingly simple solution: potted plants.
According to Niri's research, common house plants are effective at removing VOCs from the air. In 12 hours, an unassuming bromeliad (a tropical plant with long, swordlike leaves and spiky red flowers) removed at least 80 percent of six different compounds from the air inside a 76-liter container (roughly the size of a sedan's gas tank). A dracaena, with its long, strap-like leaves, was exceptionally good at gobbling up acetone — it removed 94 percent of the gas from the air. Spider plants were lightning fast — the minute one was placed inside the container, the concentration of VOCs immediately began to go down.
This research is a long way from being put to use. It hasn't been peer reviewed or published in a scientific journal, and even if it passes that hurdle, cleaning the air in a small, sealed container is very different from purifying entire rooms. Niri still needs to test his plants' effectiveness in real-world situations and to make sure that his plants are as effective if not more effective than traditional ventilation systems. If that research goes well, he hopes to test dracaena at nail salons soon.
But he thinks the research does point to a possible, inexpensive mechanism for lowering concentrations of pollutants in salons and myriad other kinds of rooms.
"We all know, but most of the time we completely forget, that air is the most consumed material by humans," Niri said. "Each of us breathes over 3,000 gallons of air each day, and even though you could go days without food and hours without water, you would last only a few minutes without air."
"That’s why air quality is extremely important and air pollution is an important environmental threat to human health."
In some ways, indoor air pollution can be worse than that outside. Concentrations of VOCs are typically two to five times higher indoors than outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The compounds are emitted by building materials, like paint and vinyl, furniture, dry-cleaned clothing, cleaning supplies, automobile fuel, even printer ink. In large enough doses, many of them can cause nausea, headaches, dizziness, skin problems, breathing problems and memory impairment. Low doses of exposure to some VOCs over long periods of time have been shown to cause liver and nervous system damage and perhaps even cancer.
The recommended maximum doses for each type of VOC varies, and it's not clear that the doses of VOCs most people are exposed to in their homes can be harmful. There's more research on the effects of working in nail salons — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration website includes a laundry list of possible health problems associated with salon work.
Niri hopes that, with the right selection of decorative plants, salons might mitigate that risk.