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NASA Research and the Story Behind the "Sick" FEMA Trailers and How Plants Repaired the Air

In 2006, the Sierra Club contacted Dr. Wolverton to install his portable high efficiency plant purifier into a FEMA trailer that tested high for formaldehyde.  Within a few days the plant air purifier reduced the level of formaldehyde inside from 0.18 parts per million to 0.03 parts per million in the trailer - taking the toxin level from unsafe to within legal limits of 0.05 ppm determined by the World Health Organization.

The previous work that led to the FEMA trailer demonstration began with NASA research into “closed ecological life support systems”.  In 1984, NASA first published studies demonstrating that interior plants could remove VOCs from sealed test chambers.  With the BioHome project, NASA ramped up their study of the cleansing powers of nature through the synergistic reactions taking place between plants and their root  microbes.  The BioHome was a very tightly constructed dwelling equipped to provide a fully functional habitat suitable for one person.  Quoting from Dr. Wolverton’s website, http://www.wolvertonenvironmental.com

“The Biohome was equipped with monitoring ports in each outside door for sampling air from inside this tightly sealed structure.  Before plants were added, mass spectrometer/gas chromatograph (mass spec/GC) analyses of the indoor air showed high levels of VOCs off-gassing from interior synthetic materials.  Upon entering the building, one experienced severe burning of the eyes and respiratory discomfort, both classic symptoms of ”sick building syndrome.”

Interior foliage plants were placed throughout the living quarters to evaluate their ability to remove VOCs out-gassed from the newly constructed and furnished facility. A small prototype fan-assisted plant filter was also placed in the living quarters.  This plant filter had the VOC removal capacity of 15 standard potted plants. Air quality was again tested using mass spec/GC analyses.  Results showed that most ot the VOCs had been removed.  The ultimate test was the fact that one no longer experienced the symptoms of “sick building  syndrome”.  This was the first “real world” application using interior plants to alleviate indoor air pollution”.

Other NASA research undertaken by Dr. Wolverton included the monitoring of rate of reduction of measured levels of various gaseous pollutants of known quantity introduced into sealed “table-top” test chambers which had various “house” plants growing inside.  The plants always reduced the levels of pollutants, without exception.

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