The Eco Expert Answers Your Eco Questions

Advice for controlling indoor allergies, eliminating skunk smell and cleaning carpets naturally.

| September/October 1999

My wife has become very concerned about the gas range in our kitchen. It has no hood or vent and she feels its electric ignition may be fueling her allergies. Since we live in an apartment, there appears little we can do to keep toxins at bay except keep the ceiling fan running and the kitchen door open to the back porch. I read in Natural Home that houseplants can reduce indoor air pollution significantly. Are houseplants effective in reducing carbon monoxide (CO) and carbon dioxide (CO2)? What types of plants are most effective?

All gas appliances can produce combustion by-products. These include carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and vapors from various organic chemicals. The most dangerous combustion by-product is carbon monoxide, created when an insufficient supply of air prevents fuels from burning completely. When a generous supply of fresh air is available and fuel is burning properly, there is little danger of poisoning. However, when neither is present—often the case during the fall and winter months when heating systems are in full use and windows are tightly sealed—appliances produce carbon monoxide that can overcome an unsuspecting bystander.

Carbon monoxide starves the body and brain of oxygen. Early symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning imitate flu symptoms: sleepiness, headache, dizziness, flushed skin, disorientation, abnormal reflexes, blurred vision, irritability, and an inability to concentrate. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal. Most hardware and home improvement stores now sell carbon monoxide detectors, which should be used in all homes with gas appliances or heaters.

However, you need not eliminate a gas stove or heating appliance simply because they represent a potential danger. Like fire, gas, too, has benefits when used with adequate precautions. I myself use a gas range because I prefer cooking with a flame.

Here’s how to use gas appliances as safely as possible.

  • Check frequently to make sure your gas appliances are functioning properly. A poorly adjusted gas stove can emit thirty times the carbon monoxide of a well-adjusted stove. Clean clogged stove burners and blocked flues, fix cracks and leaks in pipes, and keep up any maintenance suggested by the manufacturer. Many local power companies will send a representative to your home at no cost to check your appliances.
  • Dilute airborne pollutants with ventilation. A range hood-fan works best—during cooking it can remove up to 70 percent of pollutants—but if your kitchen is without one, open doors and windows and ventilate. Use small portable fans if necessary. We couldn’t have a range hood over our stove, so we installed an openable skylight in our kitchen to draw up pollutants. On rainy days we just open the window a bit.
  • Choose a new-model gas stove with a low-heat-input gas pilot light and electric ignition system, as you already have. These newer models produce significantly fewer pollutants than older ones.

And, yes, plants can remove air pollutants. The best varieties are aloe vera, bamboo palm, common chrysanthemum, dracaena palm, philodendron, golden pothos, spider plant, and schefflera. However, the scientific tests that prove the effectiveness of plants at removing pollutants were conducted with only one plant in a twelve-cubic-foot area. Since the area of an average 9-by-12-foot room with an 8-foot ceiling is 864 cubic feet, you would need seventy-two plants to duplicate these results—a virtual jungle.

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