choking cities

Lessons from NASA: These plants can help Delhi residents breathe easier at home

The cheapest air purifiers are also the easiest to maintain.

It is hard not to be alarmed at the apocalyptic pollution in Delhi – according to several monitoring agencies, the air in the national capital is the worst it has been in 17 years. People exposed to the air, particularly during peak smog hours, are reported to be suffering from hacking coughs, a burning sensation in the eyes and throat. Schools have been shut, visibility on roads is dangerously low.

These are but the short-term effects. With every lungful of breath, toxic gases and particulate matter enter the bloodstream, raising the risk of heart-related diseases and cancer. The gas chamber has sent Delhi’s residents scrambling for solutions. While the sale of electric air purifiers and anti-pollution face masks has gone up considerably over the past month, there has also been an increase in the purchase of natural air-purifying plants from nurseries across the city – a cheaper alternative for many.

Filling homes, gardens and balconies with plants and trees seems like an obvious step to combat the smog. Apart from giving oxygen, certain types of plants are also adept at filtering out specific types of toxins from the air.

NASA to the rescue

Research funded by the US space agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in the 1970s tried to find a cost-effective solution to improving air quality on board long-term space missions. It was discovered that enclosed capsules aboard the International Space Station were susceptible to filling up with gases like carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene and toluene. These are the most common air pollutants, also found in Delhi's air:

Benzene: Found in plastics, pesticides, cigarette smoke, cleaning products, lubricants, and synthetic fibres.

Trichloroethylene: Found in spot removers, adhesives, rug-cleaning solution, correction fluid, and paint removers.

Formaldehyde: Found commonly in carpets, glue, paint, upholstery, building materials, cigarette smoke, fuel-burning appliances.

Carbon Monoxide: Gas stoves, ovens, water heaters, vehicles, generators are some major sources.

NASA found that the most feasible way to address this problem was to grow certain varieties of plants that were able to remove toxins from an enclosed testing chamber.

A list of 50 plants was compiled by NASA. Listed below are the ones easiest to maintain and most commonly found in nurseries around Delhi.

Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa)

Broadleaf Lady Palm. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Broadleaf Lady Palm. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This durable palm species adapts well to living indoors and is among some of the easiest palms to maintain. It grows slowly, which makes it ideal as an indoor potted plant, but can grow taller than 14 feet in height when allowed to grow freely in soil. Water generously on alternate days, making sure that the soil is well drained.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)

Spider Plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Spider Plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Also known as air plants, spider plants grow quickly and look great in hanging baskets. They need water two to three times a week, and are among the easiest houseplants to grow – making them a great choice for beginners or forgetful owners. In bright, indirect sunlight, spider plants send out shoots with flowers that eventually grow into baby spider plants or "spiderettes". The leaves grow quickly and help to absorb harmful substances like mould and other allergens, so it is perfect for those with common dust allergies. It also helps to absorb small traces of formaldehyde and carbon monoxide.

Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)

Chamaedorea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chamaedorea. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Also called the “reed palm”, this palm prefers bright indirect light. New plants will lose of some of their inner leaves as they adjust to indoor settings. This plant likes to stay uniformly moist, but does not like to be over-watered or to sit in standing water.

Rubber Plant (Ficus robusta)

Rubber Plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Rubber Plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Rubber plants grow well indoors, preferring moderate light. Young plants may need to be supported by a stick, but the stem thickens with age, and the plant can reach up to a height of 8 feet. Wear gloves when pruning a rubber plant, as the milky sap may irritate the skin. Water thoroughly when young, then allow the soil to become fairly dry before watering again. In winter, keep rubber plants slightly moist. This houseplant releases more oxygen than most other plants, and purifies indoor air by removing chemicals such as formaldehyde.

Boston Fern (Nephrolepis exaltata “Bostoniensis”)

Boston fern. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Boston fern. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Boston fern grows up to 4 inches in height with a spread of up to 5 inches. It has feathery ferns, which are best displayed in hanging planters. This fern prefers bright indirect sunlight. Keep the soil barely moist, and mist frequently with warm water. Said to act as a natural air humidifier, the Boston Fern removes formaldehyde and is a general air purifier.

Dragon Plant (Dracaena marginata)

Dragon tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Dragon tree. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is an attractive, stiff-leaved plant with colourful foliage, that is sometimes known by the name dragon tree. It thrives in loose, well-drained soil and warm climates. The dragon tree likes indirect sunlight, and need to be watered sparingly. It eliminates formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, benzene, and trichloroethylene.

Golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum)

Epipremnum aureum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Epipremnum aureum. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Also known as Devil’s Ivy, the money plant flourishes in a variety of conditions, and can grow up to 8 feet long. It is also considered one of the most effective indoor air purifiers for removing common toxins. Though it is commonly grown indoors in a container filled with water, it can also be potted in soil with a moss stick to provide support to the vines. It needs to be watered sparingly and can be trimmed when the tendrils get too long. Devil's Ivy eliminates formaldehyde, xylene, toluene, benzene, carbon monoxide.

Aloe Vera (Aloe barbadensis)

Aloe vera. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Aloe vera. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Aloe Vera is primarily known for its gel, which is excellent for healing burns and cuts. It is easy to grow in indoor sunlight, and needs to be watered only once a week. Aloe helps to keep your home free from benzene, which is commonly found in paint and certain chemical cleaners. When new shoots appear through the soil, they can be removed and repotted to yield additional plants.

Ficus/Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

Weeping Fig. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Weeping Fig. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A hardy houseplant that can grow between 2 and 10 feet in height, it needs bright, indirect light, and dry soil between waterings. Although it has air-cleaning abilities, it does not respond well to the cold or stress. Refrain from moving it around too much, as it will go into shock and shed all its leaves. Ficus plants eliminate benzene, formaldehyde, and trichloroethylene.

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum “Mauna Loa”)

Peace Lily. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Peace Lily. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a compact plant which grows to up to a height of 3 feet. Peace lilies are hardy and tolerate neglect. They prefers indirect sunlight and high humidity, but need to be placed out of drafts. For best results, the Peace Lily should be thoroughly watered, then allowed to go moderately dry between waterings. The leaves should be misted frequently with warm water (note: the pollen of lilies is toxic for pets).

Snake Plant/Mother In Law’s Tongue (Sansevieria Trifasciata)

Snake plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Snake plant. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Grown for its striking, upright sword-like leaves, the snake plant is easy to grow and spread once baby plants appear. Avoid overwatering and it will flourish even in low lighting conditions. This plant eliminates benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene.

When purchasing plants, instead of buying pre-potted ones, it is advisable to ask for saplings in bags, which are cheaper and can be transplanted in various combinations for a fuller pot. In particular, palms, spider plants, snake plants and aloe do well together.

Conversely, pre-potted plants that have thick growth and a number of shoots can be separated, so the individual plants can be repotted.

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Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.

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During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.