NASA didn’t publish study on snake plants providing life-saving oxygen
CLAIM: A NASA study found that six to eight snake plants in a room with no airflow is enough for human survival. The agency therefore recommends 15 to 18 plants for an 1,800-square-foot home.
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. The agency did not reach those conclusions or offer such recommendations, a spokesperson confirmed. The claim may be a distortion of a1989 NASA report focused on whether indoor plants can help clean the air, not sustain human life. An expert in plant biochemistry further said six to eight snake plants, as claimed, wouldn’t produce the level of oxygen required by a human in a day.
THE FACTS: A persisting falsehood resurfaced on Facebook this week, with users sharing a video suggesting that the federal agency found that a few of the popular house plants would be enough to save a human trapped inside without airflow.
“According to NASA’s Clean Air Study, the Snake Plant is so effective in producing oxygen that if you were locked in a sealed room with no airflow (yikes!), you would be able to survive with just 6-8 plants in it,” text on the video reads. “NASA recommends 15 to 18 medium-to-large size plants for a 1,800 square-foot home for optimum air quality.”
But the agency didn’t issue such a study or guidance.
“NASA has not made these claims or recommendations,” NASA spokesperson Rob Margetta told The Associated Press in an email.
A small team at the agency’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi did publish a report more than three decades ago that looked at common household plants and their ability to remove some household toxins from sealed chambers, Margetta noted.
That 1989 report, “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement,” was done in conjunction with a landscaping group and focused on plants’ ability to filter out contaminants in such settings.
The report did assert that plants — including snake plants, referred to in the report as a Mother-in-law’s tongue — can help improve air quality. It didn’t, however, evaluate using them to produce enough oxygen to sustain human life in precarious situations.
The “research was focused on sealed areas with limited airflow, not typical residential or commercial spaces,” Margetta added. “Since the study’s publication, its findings have often been misinterpreted or misapplied.”
Some subsequent research has cast doubt on plants’ ability to improve air quality in normal indoor environments.
And while plants use a process known as photosynthesis to absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, they aren’t as efficient as the social media post suggests.
“The reality is that the rate at which they do these processes is much lower than what you need to actually support a human,” said Berkley Walker, an assistant professor of plant biochemistry at Michigan State University.
Using a generous and general estimate, Walker said, it would likely take leaf area the size of a one-car garage to produce enough oxygen that a human requires in one day. Even then, that’s assuming constant, ideal conditions — such as continued sunlight.
There’s no evidence that snake plants perform at a higher level than other plants, let alone one to support the theory shared online, Walker said.
Scientists are researching ways to improve plants’ efficiency to get greater returns in terms of absorbing carbon dioxide and growing food, Walker said, which would in turn result in releasing more oxygen.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.