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Your office is an ecosystem

Winter brings dry skin, stuffy noses and aching sinuses to workers in tightly sealed office buildings. It's not that there's an epidemic going around -- it's just that the indoor air quality is, well, less than fresh.

But all it takes to get your office feeling more habitable is a few green plants, suggests Betty Spezia, the owner of Alcoy Garden Supplies in Detroit.

"You'll notice a big difference," she promises.

The air in many homes and workplaces is contaminated by countless substances, including cleaning solutions, toner from printers and photocopiers, paint fumes, insulation, glues and upholstery.

In an eight-hour work day, each person breathes almost 800 gallons of air. Modern diseases such as sick building syndrome and other building-related illnesses -- with symptoms such as fatigue, headaches, eye irritation, fever and infections -- are often blamed on high concentrations of air-borne chemicals.

The best medicine is fresh air from outside. But when it's excruciatingly hot or bitterly cold outdoors, it is much cheaper for businesses to recycle air than to bring air from outside to a comfortable temperature.

A simple antidote is to keep plants in your home or office. "Most plants are great," says Spezia, whose favorite air filter is the spider plant. "It cleans it, but it puts ... oxygen into the air. A lot of people need that."

Those prone to respiratory diseases such as bronchitis and asthma can especially benefit, she adds.

All healthy plants produce oxygen in the daytime. Broad-leafed plants such as umbrella palm, fatsia japonica and dracaenea give off the most.

If there's more oxygen in the air, the logic goes, the air-borne toxins will be more diluted. And some plants, such as peace lilies, prayer plants, ivies, philodendrons and sanseveria (mother-in-law's tongue) actually remove some contaminants from the air by absorbing them.

Before you rush to your local plant shop, however, there are a few things to consider. Not everyone agrees that potted plants do enough to clean indoor air to earn their keep. And they can even be harmful.

Brian Nordin, an industrial hygienist, suggests that the benefits of potted plants are outweighed by their drawbacks. "For the amount you'd have to put in, it would be like a jungle, and then you'd have to take care of them."

Poorly maintained plants can carry dust and grow molds, two of the main causes of allergies. In fact, Nordin says, when he receives a complaint about a building's air quality, uncared-for plants are among the first things he looks for.

Even though they have no air-cleaning benefits, he goes so far as to recommend silk or plastic plants and flowers over the living, breathing real thing.

Spezia says these kinds of problems can be avoided by wiping dust from your plants' leaves at least once a month.

"Maintaining a plant is like a baby. You have to clean it," she says.

For a truly healthy office, however, it takes a bigger effort than installing a few potted palms.

"Plants all by themselves are not the machine that cleans the air," says Mike Dixon, a plant physiologist at the University of Guelph in Ontario. "It's the ecosystem. The complex interaction of hundreds of plant species, and insects even, is what cleans the air."

Dixon is the director of a part of Ontario's Centre for Research in Earth and Space Technologies that for five years has been working on putting air-cleaning ecosystems into offices and homes.

These minijungles, which Dixon calls "biofilters," combine hundreds of species of plants -- from mosses to ferns and higher plants -- on a wet wall of lava rock.

Originally designed to provide fresh air for colonists on the moon or Mars, the walls cost anywhere from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand, depending on size. So far they have only been put into new buildings during construction.

The installations have been likened to murals, but Dixon says they aren't just pretty; they are good at cleaning indoor air.

"To date, our research has supported the finding that the biological filter we are using at the Canada Life Environment Room is at least as good as the most sophisticated air handling system that there is."

The prototype biofilter of which he speaks is in the Toronto board room of Canada Life Assurance, an insurance company.

Genetron, a Toronto-based company, markets the biofilters as breathing walls. Panasonic and Club Monaco clothing have bought them for their corporate offices, as have a number of small businesses and private homes.

While Dixon is mostly interested in clean air and calculating efficiency, Wolfgang Amelung, inventor of the breathing wall, takes a more philosophical approach.

"It's a really, really exciting thing for me to see that we can be so much in alignment with nature," he says. "All we understand is how to rape and pillage nature, how to feed off mother's breast. This may be the first real effort to be aligned with nature, to charge forward with it."

Working or living beside a breathing wall is bound to change how one views the living Earth. The way the wall creates life -- by allowing plant and animal species to develop and diversify on a foundation of rock and water -- mimics how the planet began.

"I think we need a different relationship with the world around us," says Amelung.

"This isn't anything particularly revolutionary," says Dixon. "This is biological systems. This is how the planet works."

The challenge has been to bring the outdoors in and make it self-sustaining. Pruning, water and a reservoir of nutrients are all the walls need.

The Genetron team, which travels to each breathing wall to maintain it once a month, is working to develop a mobile version, which Dixon calls a "green box." It will allow you to put your own breathing wall just about anywhere.

Until that's ready, widely available and affordable, why not add a few plants to your office decor? They'll help a bit, and as long as they're kept clean they won't do any harm. Besides, they look nice.

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