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Move Over, Air Filter. Scientists Have a Greener Idea

HealthDay News
by -- Robert Preidt
Updated: Dec 20th 2018

new article illustration

THURSDAY, Dec. 20, 2018 (HealthDay News) -- A common houseplant to help keep your home's air cleaner and safer?

Scientists report they have genetically altered pothos ivy to filter certain hazardous chemicals from household air.

Many people use HEPA air filters to reduce levels of allergens and dust particles in their homes. But the molecules of the chemicals benzene and chloroform are too small to be trapped in these filters, the University of Washington researchers explained.

Chloroform is present in small amounts in chlorinated water. Benzene -- a component of gasoline -- can accumulate in homes through showering or boiling water, or by keeping cars or lawn mowers in attached garages, the study authors noted.

Both benzene and chloroform exposure have been linked to cancer.

"People haven't really been talking about these hazardous organic compounds in homes, and I think that's because we couldn't do anything about them," study senior author Stuart Strand said in a university news release. He's a research professor in the department of civil and environmental engineering.

"Now we've engineered houseplants to remove these pollutants for us," Strand said.

The researchers genetically modified pothos ivy to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. The altered plants produce a protein called 2E1 that transforms chloroform and benzene into molecules the plants can use for growth.

When placed in glass tubes with either benzene or chloroform gas, the modified plants reduced chloroform levels by 82 percent after three days, and the gas was almost undetectable by day six. Benzene levels dropped by about 75 percent after eight days, the researchers said.

These lab tests used much higher levels of the gases than would be found in homes, but it's likely that the plants would lower home levels of the gases as fast, or even faster, the study authors said.

The researchers said they're now adding another protein to pothos ivy that can break down formaldehyde, a gas found in many wood products and tobacco smoke.

The research was published Dec. 19 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

More information

The American Lung Association has more on indoor air quality.