Bill and Ben versus the workplace biohazards

It’s official – your workplace can be hazardous to your health.

No, we’re not referring to dodgy sandwiches or the practical jokes that went down at the last office party (though these could make a very unnerving article in their own right). What we’re bringing to light is the fact that your IT equipment, the materials it’s made from and packaged in, the furnishings and fittings and even the stuff everything gets cleaned with can produce toxic chemicals that can have unpleasant effects on the workforce’s health.

These amounts of chemicals such as xylene, styrene, toluene, benzene, carbon monoxide emitted in the office environment are small  – but they can be enough to cause sore throats, itchy eyes, headaches and respiratory and  sinus problems.

Offices are well insulated and draught-proofed too – which is great for saving money and keeping everyone comfortable, but not so great for ventilating the harmful gases out of peoples’ workspaces. The symptoms caused by noxious chemicals can be noticed especially on a Monday morning , when the gases have backed up over the weekend  without the general people-flow of the working day which would otherwise help a little to diffuse them.

There’s no need to go to work in a gas mask (though it’s worth pointing out that when these were originally made during World War I, they came with an inbuilt asbestos filter!) – the chemicals can be kept at bay by the humble houseplant.

Many businesses have used plants as living décor, without realising how useful they can be as a health asset. The plants – including ivy, ferns, rubber plants, money plants, spider plants and aloe vera – absorb the noxious compounds, recycle them into nutrients in their roots and release oxygen back into the air – and they are very efficient at it too. According to NASA, one spider plant can reduce the amount of carbon monoxide in a room by 96% over 24 hours.

Here’s our quick guide to the green line of defence against everyday chemical warfare:

The chemical culpritsWhere they come fromBest plants to combat them
XyleneMonitors & printersAreca palm, Boston fern
TrichloroethenePaint & cleaning materialsDragon tree, Money plant
FormaldehydeCarpets, MDF furniture, insulationBoston fern, Monstera
BenzenePaint, detergents, glue, vehicles, cigarette smokeIvy, Asparagus fern
AmmoniaCleaning  materialsPeace lily
StyrenePlastics, resins, packaging, insulationSpider plant
TolueneMonitors & printers, glue, correction fluidsMother in law’s tongue, Bamboo palm
Carbon MonoxideVehicles, stoves, cookersAloe vera, Rubber plant