Corporate-Backed Research Highlights Need for Public Funding

There are a lot of changes we need to make, if we want to get control of how we affect the non-human parts of this planet. One of my favorites to talk about, partly for aesthetic reasons, is filling urban landscapes with plant life. While doing so isn’t enough by itself, and brings its own problems, it would improve the lives of city-dwellers in a number of ways, especially while there are still cars about. With that as my standing opinion, I’m sure you won’t be surprised that my eye was caught by a university press release claiming that “plants remove cancer-causing toxins from air“.

A ground-breaking study has revealed that plants can efficiently remove toxic petrol fumes, including cancer causing compounds such as benzene, from indoor air.

The study was led by University of Technology Sydney (UTS) bioremediation researcher Associate Professor Fraser Torpy, in partnership with leading plantscaping solutions company Ambius.

The researchers found that the Ambius small green wall, containing a mix of indoor plants, was highly effective at removing harmful, cancer-causing pollutants, with 97 per cent of the most toxic compounds removed from the surrounding air in just eight hours.

They go on to talk about the health problems caused by air pollution, which would be fine, normally, but when this research is explicitly in partnership with a corporation that’s trying to sell a product, it starts to come across more like fearmongering to drive sales. I want to be clear – I have no particular reason to doubt this research, on the face of it. They put their “green wall” in a sealed chamber with some car exhaust, took measurements, and got clear results. This is far from the first time that research has pointed to plants as a way to filter out air pollution, and so I’m certainly inclined to believe it, but…

This is also the exact result that a company trying to sell a product would want to get, which makes it all but useless as anything other than an advertisement. Even if it does end up in a peer-reviewed journal (it’s not right now, as far as I can tell – you have to give Ambius your email to get a copy of the report), nobody of good will can entirely trust it, and if it were included as part of a case for change, anybody of bad will could point to the blatant conflict of interest, and use that to derail the whole effort.

This is why public funding is so important, especially in a capitalist society. Between advertising and propaganda, it’s already hard for a lot of people to figure out what’s going on, and that confusion is wonderful for con artists, whether they’re trying to get a few bucks out of people, or trying to drive humanity to extinction for more oil money. We need clarity, right now, and while I’m sure that the business in question is trying to do well by doing good, this doesn’t help.


  1. invivoMark says

    I agree, government-funded research is extremely important for so many reasons, including the one you point out. Unfortunately, U.S. Congress’s budget deal is going to cap non-military spending, which will make it hard to support that research for at least a few years. That’s just another arrow in the quiver of the Republicans who are trying to kill this country.

    Interestingly, my first thought when I read the result of this study was, how does the wall of plants compare to a human or two sitting in the same room and breathing? If the humans are just as efficient as the plants at removing pollution, then why do we need the plants? Just invite your friends over. And if they’re not, then maybe humans aren’t taking in enough of the pollution for it to be harmful.

  2. says

    Research has already demonstrated the harm of air pollution quite well, including the recent study about the effects of having a gas stove in your home.

    My first thought was to wonder how much air pollution would be left in the sealed chamber without the plants being there at all. I’m assuming it would still be more, since plants spend that time doing gas exchange, but I’m assuming some portion of it would settle. I dunno, maybe I’ll just give the corporation my email so I can see if they checked for that.

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