Earlier this semester, my roommates and I had to endure an unfortunate reality that has been all too familiar to Boston College students this year: quarantine. Per Massachusetts regulations, BC requires students who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate for a minimum of 10 days and those who come into close contact with someone who has tested positive to quarantine for at least seven days since last contact. While serving this time in quarantine or isolation, BC students must not leave their rooms, rendering them with no opportunity to go outdoors.
Not being allowed outside was by far the worst part of my quarantine. Sitting in front of an open window was the closest thing I had to being outside, and if you saw my roommates and me sitting in the window sill like cats during that week, feel free to forget that memory.
One godsend during our quarantine was the houseplants we had in our common room. Watering them gave us a task for the day and watching them grow was something to look forward to (I am aware of how this sounds. Quarantine is a serious sanity test).
In taking care of these plants, however, I remembered a discussion about indoor carbon dioxide levels from an environmental class. Most times when you hear about carbon dioxide levels, it is in the context of fossil fuels and the alarming rate at which carbon dioxide levels are rising in the atmosphere. Climate scientists predict the world is on track to approach 685 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the air by 2050. This highly concerning level would prevent us from stabilizing the temperature increases of the 21st century.
The alarm that has been sounded about outdoor concentrations of carbon dioxide becomes even more concerning when you learn that air pollution levels are much higher indoors than outdoors. Concentrations of carbon dioxide indoors are usually around 1,000 ppm, and sometimes can range between 2,000 ppm and 5,000 ppm in poorly ventilated areas. These concentrations pose the question of how we respond biologically when exposed to such high levels.
High indoor carbon dioxide concentrations are detrimental to physical and mental health. Researchers found that people’s decision-making skills moderately declined at 1,000 ppm, and that those skills substantially declined at 2,500 ppm. The effects of indoor carbon dioxide concentrations have even been given a name: sick building syndrome, which is categorized by irritability, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, and even nausea.
One study measured cognitive abilities between people working in a typical building and those of people working in a “green” building, which followed protocols of ventilation and sustainability put forth by the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. The results showed that all measures of cognitive function tested stronger in the green building, with the largest differences observed in the crisis response, information usage, and strategy categories.
One of the indoor areas that is most susceptible to high levels of carbon dioxide is classrooms. Researchers have found evidence that carbon dioxide concentrations in schools are consistently at the levels that caused disturbances in the aforementioned study. Elementary schools in California and Texas, for instance, measured concentrations ranging anywhere from 1,000 ppm to 3,000 ppm. Although no studies were specifically done in university classrooms or dorm rooms, it is a fair assumption that levels would be comparable to elementary school classrooms or the offices used in the green building study.
It should be noted that a Danish study, on the other hand, said that the correlations are due to differences in overall mental ability of participants. It also held that the spaces where tests were conducted to measure baseline carbon dioxide in buildings, like the elementary schools in California and Texas, often had a high density of people, which could have contributed to the higher carbon dioxide levels. But, most office spaces and schools consistently have a high density of people, so perhaps they can still be considered relevant.
Nonetheless, wherever the carbon dioxide is coming from, it is still causing more harm than good. Fortunately, there is a completely natural and even aesthetically pleasing method to reducing carbon dioxide levels: houseplants!
NASA was the first to discover the purifying ability of houseplants. Its study, motivated by keeping air clean in space stations, found that indoor plants can eliminate volatile compounds that often pollute our indoor spaces. The cleansing ability of houseplants is because of the bacteria in soil. Further, indoor plants are reported to improve the gamut of physical health, leading to higher happiness and creativity levels, fewer distractions, and better task performance.
The magic number is three—just three potted plants in an average indoor room can reduce the concentration of harmful air compounds significantly.
There is still plenty of research to be done regarding indoor carbon dioxide levels and the role of plants in reducing them, and luckily, there is motivation that will likely prompt this research. Spending more time in and around nature, even if it is by spending time with a small plant in a dorm room, has been shown to positively affect a person’s mood and energy levels. So, whether in quarantine, isolation, or just in need of a mood boost, everyone should get a houseplant.
Featured Graphic by Olivia Charbonneau/ Heights Editor