Urban gardens : beautiful & critical

We had an  interesting discussion this evening which lead us to think about something that we had not considered before – indoor air quality.

Even more intriguing was the solution to better indoor air quality – urban gardens.

Urban homes contain an unexpected cocktail of pollutants, chief among them being Formaldehyde.

We all know formaldehyde, some of us (like me) more than others. When I studied Zoology in college, I encountered Formaldehyde in the lab, where it was used to preserve dead animal specimens.

But Formaldehyde, also makes its insidious way into our homes and offices, in 3 ways:

  1. Emissions from  particle board products
  2. Vapours from common household products
  3. By burning materials (smoking, excessive frying, burning of leaves and waste, car exhausts)

The unexpected appearance of Formaldehyde in our homes and offices

Pressed wood products are made using adhesives containing urea-formaldehyde resins . The slow daily release of formaldehyde from pressed wood products is one of the major sources of formaldehyde in indoor air. Pressed wood products include particle board used for shelves, cabinets and furniture, hardwood ply panelling, and MDF boards, used in furniture.

We also come in contact with formaldehyde, both directly on the skin and in the air, due to several products that use it. For example formaldehyde is used

  1. As a wet-strength resin added to facial tissues
  2. As a finisher to create crease- resistant fabrics, often used in formal wear.
  3. As a contaminant in liquid bath products – it is formed when preservatives in bath products break down over time.
  4. As an active ingredient  in anti bacterial personal care products
  5. As a preservative in liquid personal care products

Also commonly used in cosmetics are the by-product s of formaldehyde like Quaternium-15 , Imidazolidinyl urea and 1,4,dioxin (which is present in baby wash, baby & adult shampoos)

Japan and Sweden have taken the lead in banning formaldehyde and all its cousins in cosmetics.

Safety issues around formaldehyde

At concentrations of 0.1 ppm (parts per million) in the air, formaldehyde can irritate the eyes and mucous membranes. At this concentration, formaldehyde can cause headaches, a burning sensation in the throat & breathing difficulties.

There is a strong correlation between formaldehyde exposure and the development of childhood asthma. Chronic exposure levels, starting at 1.9 ppm result in significant damage to the pulmonary system.

That’s about breathing the stuff. When directly applied on skin, as in the case of personal products that contain formaldehyde, it is linked to skin allergies and cancer, but more on that later.

Sick Building syndrome

Modern offices are full of particle board furniture, industrial paints, solvents, and harsh cleaning agents, the key causes of Sick Building Syndrome. Sick building syndrome is a series of ailments that arise due to the poor indoor air quality of buildings. A 1984 WHO report estimated that 30% of newly built office buildings worldwide exhibited the symptoms of Sick building syndrome.

People who work in sick buildings exhibit a long variety of symptoms that include general discomfort, irritated mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and throat (so itchy / dry skin, coughs and colds), respiratory problems and allergic reactions. These reactions may increase with higher levels of pollution like redecorating the office or a paint job.

Reducing formaldehyde in homes and at work


Avoid using particle made boards in home and office furniture. Use real wood (source it responsibly, of course) or plywood, which have lower levels of formaldehyde. You could also try using bamboo or rattan furniture which provides a livelihood to craftspeople , and looks awesome.

Switch to more natural household cleansers and personal care products, or begin by restricting use of these products.

For example: If you mop your floors everyday with a commercial anti-bacterial product, you could alternate days when you use natural additives like neem oil instead to mop the floors. It is environmentally friendly, sustainable and better for your indoor air.

Look for alternatives in the personal care products that you use. Liquids are fragile and need preservatives like formaldehyde derivatives, so try using solids instead. Solid shampoos for instance, or traditional healthy, sustainable powder based alternatives like shikakai – trust me they work fabulously well.

The urban garden : Improving indoor air quality

The friendly Epipremnum pinnatum (alright, the moneyplant!)  works crazily well in homes because of its innate ability to absorb and remove formaldehyde, xylene and benzene.

The friendly Money plant

It is an easy to grow, hardy plant that requires very little space or support . Best of all, it can be grown in plastic containers, used bottles, or any other container that would otherwise find its way to a landfill – so you get to filter your indoor air and do solid waste management all at once.

You would just need a stem cutting of the money plant to start your own indoor air filter. Stick into a container with good soil, and water it once a day, and you are good to go. (Just remember to expose it to sunlight every few days).

Growing fresh air – The Paharpur business Centre

I wanted to end this post by writing about Kamal Meattle.  When told that the pollution in Delhi was killing him (his lung capacity had dropped to 70%), he decided to find a solution.

Kamal and a team from IIT Delhi, begin looking at ways to reduce pollution in offices and grow fresh air in them using plants. Their research was implemented in the Paharpur Business Centre in Delhi, in the heart of Delhi.

Employees in this building have had a

  • 20% increase in productivity
  • 54% lower eye irritation
  • 34% lower respiratory symptoms
  • 12% lower number of headaches ,
  • Improvement in lung impairment (24%), and asthma (9%).

The energy requirements of the building reduced by 15%, because less ‘fresh’ outdoor air needs to be directed into the building. In an interview with some of the employees, they called the air quality of the building similar to that of a hill station.

That’s the sort of office that we have decided to build at Krya : No formals, No Formaldehyde, and lots of money (plants).

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6 Responses to Urban gardens : beautiful & critical

  1. Hi,
    Very interesting post.

    Which other plants are effective ? Are the small indoor bamboo plants that grow in pots withs stones effective too ? What about cacti ?


    • Hey Zen,
      Thanks for that!

      2 other plants that are great for improving indoor air quality, researched in India are : Dypsis lutescens (areca palm plant), & Sansevieria trifasciata (also called the Snakeplant).

      Sansevieria trifasciata is also considered a great plant to absorb formaldehydes and nitrogen oxides.

      This comes from NASA’s research earlier that listed about 21 plants that improve indoor air quality. We will put their research into a downloadable ebook on all these plants , their photographs, and names in Indian languages, to make it easier to find them.

  2. Hi!

    Thats something I personally did not expect to be in my home!!
    You are doing good work in finding these out, and also, publishing them!

  3. Hey Preethi,
    Very Very Interesting and relatable. Am now looking around my house thinking what i can change. Good luck with Krya. Am sure you are going to do wonders!

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