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Plants in the Workplace: Could They Slow the Spread of COVID-19?

Plants in the Workplace: Could They Slow the Spread of COVID-19?

This article is going to start with a disclaimer. The content here does not, in any way, claim that plants provide any cure or treatment for the deadly and devastating COVID-19 virus strain. The content below is not medical advice.

Before we get into the details of this discussion, here are two crucial things to note. First, we do not know how infectious COVID-19 is in asymptomatic carriers — those with COVID-19 in their system who do not display symptoms– but Healthline confirms that you can contract the virus from those who are asymptomatic. Second, COVID-19 is thought to be transmitted predominantly through moisture droplets, such as those spread into the air when a person coughs or sneezes. This is why social distancing and PPE (personal protective equipment) have proven effective in reducing case numbers.

These two pieces of information mean that if an individual is not displaying symptoms of COVID-19 — but coughs or sneezes due to a respiratory response to other factors — they still have a high chance of spreading the COVID-19 virus. So, if we can reduce the amount of sneezing and coughing in the workplace, we reduce the spread.

How Plants Could Help Reduce COVID-19 Spread

The use of plants to improve air quality is a controversial topic. A major scientific study by NASA claimed that houseplants remove toxic pollutants and irritants from the environment, making the air cleaner and safer to breathe, which is great for respiratory health. An article in the National Geographic, however, refutes these claims. It argues that the experiments were conducted in sealed laboratories and therefore are not accurate portrayals of an environment that humans actually inhabit. The article claims houseplants don’t purify the air.

Even though there is conflicting data, there is a balance to be struck here. In environments where there is a lot of airflow from natural sources, plants aren’t going to make a huge difference to pollutants. However, in tight office spaces with few windows and closed doors, they can potentially eliminate harmful particulates in the air. Plants can also be used as absorptive surfaces to remove dust from the air.

With a reduction in these particulates comes a decrease in coughing and sneezing from allergies and irritation. This reduction means there is a lower risk of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers accidentally passing on the virus. Just be careful that you are only introducing greenery and allergy-friendly plants, and not pollen-rich species that will exacerbate allergy issues.

Plants vs. Moisture

Wherever you sit on the discussion of plants as air purifiers, it’s difficult to dispute that plants have another benefit relating to health. Some plants — peace lily, areca palm, bamboo palm as examples — release moisture into the air and make the environment more humid. Other plant types — like epiphytes and cacti — absorb moisture and dry out the air. But how does this help reduce the spread of COVID-19?

Studies show us that dry office environments increase the spread of viral strains. In the winter, when humidity is low, and artificial heaters warm indoor air, the lack of moisture in the air makes it easy for viral particles to travel further after coughs and sneezes. Basically, there is less in the air to get in the way of the virus, so it can cover greater distances before it lands on a surface and dies off. Increasing humidity during cold and dry seasons makes it harder for COVID-19 to transmit from person-to-person.

However, findings from the same report suggest high humidity increases the lifespan of viral strains on surfaces, which can also increase the infection rate of COVID-19. In high humidity environments, plants can help to lower indoor humidity to safer levels to reduce the lifespan of the virus outside of a human host.

The study suggests that humidity between 40% and 60% is ideal for containing the movement of viral strains while also reducing their lifespan on surfaces. The simple use of humidity meters can help you understand your workplace humidity and optimize your business for protection against viral spreads. This is not just a way to reduce COVID-19, but also seasonal flu and other viruses.

We’re Not Done Yet

High humidity has another problem. Many have experienced the ramifications of humidity in their own home, especially in the bathroom where humidity causes mold after the steam of showers leaves residue and moisture on different surfaces.

Mold spores thrive in hot and humid environments, particularly in dark and damp places where they can proliferate unseen and undisturbed. But even when out of sight, these spores are a problem. Mold spores in the air are full of bacteria, which can irritate respiratory tracts in the same way as dust or pollen. Mold exposure results in a variety of symptoms, including chronic coughing and sneezing.

Plants will not remove existing mold — only deep cleaning can do this– but they can lower humidity to help stop mold from growing and recurring — another way to reduce the asymptomatic spread of COVID-19.

Stress, COVID-19 and Plants

In the 21st-century, we’re starting to get a real understanding of the physiological reactions our body has to stress. Amongst the many other issues it can cause, stress lowers our immune system’s ability to prevent and fight off infections.

A study from RICE University in Houston, Texas, reports how those suffering from stress are much more susceptible to COVID-19 than other individuals. Christopher Fagundes, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, confirms that it is “without question” that chronic stress weakens the immune system and makes us more prone to catching viral strains like COVID-19 and the flu. This will come as uncomfortable news for people in your office.

With COVID-19 being a direct cause of stress at work right now — along with an unstable economy and a vulnerable job market — a vicious cycle of stress increases the chances of catching the virus. Fear of catching COVID-19 causes more stress, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Plants could help.

It sounds like a crazy notion, but there is a method behind the madness. Plants make people happy. Studies by Green Life Industry in Australia demonstrate how plants in the workplace can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety by as much as 37%.

We are yet to have a true scientific answer as to why proximity to plants reduces stress in such a profound way, but prevailing theories suggest it’s simply to do with a sense of freedom and leisure that we associate with being outdoors and away from the workplace.

While plants won’t kill the COVID-19 virus, they can enhance mood, which can be a key factor in fighting off infections and stopping your workforce from getting sick. Combined with other stress-fighting methods, plants may be a vital ally in our fight to beat this global crisis.

Closing Thoughts on Using Plants to Fight COVID-19 Spread

What we really should note from National Geographic’s discussion on plants is that if we’re going to have them do anything, we need them in abundance. Just one or two plants in the corner of your office won’t do anything but look pretty. To really feel the effects of plants in your workspace, you’ll want to invest in plenty of them. Consider buying in bulk with wholesale planters and pots, and going to town on your business’s greenery.

Outside of fighting COVID-19, there are plenty of other benefits to this investment. Plants in the office increase productivityreduce sick days, and turbocharge employee acquisition and retention. They provide some powerful advantages for your business, and in this current and uncertain climate, can support healthier and happier workers. In business, we’re always on the hunt for hard workers, and plants may just be the hardest working asset of them all.


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by Marissa Collins //

Opinions expressed by contributors are their own.