Did a NASA study show that Snake Plants produce enough oxygen to sustain human life in a sealed room?

By June 8, 2023 Health, Science

We saw this claim circulating on social media sites like Facebook and TikTok.

The claim is that a study by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) showed snake plants are so effective at producing oxygen that 6 to 8 plants would be enough for a human to survive in a sealed room with no airflow. Many of these claims also list the snake plant as one of several “NASA approved” air-purifying houseplants that filter toxic particles from air.

Looking across social media, blogs, and content platforms, this persistent claim resurfaces at least once a year. While many platforms are plant retailers, some produce lifestyle or gardening content, while others report on health and research topics. Most use the “NASA” name as a key point of interest.

However, in reality, none of these claims are backed by any research findings – from NASA or otherwise.

All the claims cite a NASA “Clean Air Study,” published over 30 years ago in 1989 and available in full on the NASA website. Although the study focused on common plants, it was not intended to study their efficacy in general home usage. Instead, it ran controlled tests in a specific, sealed environment more similar to a sealed spacecraft to find out how indoor air pollutants could potentially be reduced in space.

While the study did find that certain plants had potential to remove varying amounts of certain pollutants under very specific conditions, it neither ranked them in a definitive list, nor made any recommendations for general public usage in homes.

Claims related to the air-purification capabilities of plants can be traced directly to misinterpretation of the “Clean Air Study.” However, the claim about snake plants producing enough oxygen to sustain human life in a vacuum has virtually no link to this study. While all the claims cite NASA as it’s source, we found no such mention in the original study, nor in any other studies published by NASA. A fact-check conducted by AP Fact-Check also includes a statement by a NASA spokesperson which confirms this.

We therefore give this claim a rating of false.

The claim’s provenance remains confusing despite other platforms fact-checking and debunking it. As the phrasing of the claim remains fairly consistent across different posts, we dug deeper into older articles before finally finding a Ted Talk from 14 years ago, in 2009, titled “How to Grow Fresh Air.”

In this talk, Kamal Meattle, a researcher, vaguely mentions NASA while specifically recommending “six to eight waist-high plants per person.” Without citing any concrete evidence, he goes on to claim that “in fact you could be in a bottle with a cap on top, and you would not die at all, and you would not need any fresh air.”

It is highly probable that subsequent misinformation (and misattribution of this information to NASA) stems directly from this video and Meattle’s other interviews.

These seeds of uncertainty – from the passage of time and abundance of disproved articles that have remained posted without correction – is concerning. Page 1 results from a Google search using the terms “snake plant” and “NASA” repeat the claim, further contributing to its enduring nature despite repeated debunking. Although this particular topic seems relatively harmless, it is a product of the same patterns of misinformation that cause increased susceptibility to fake news and less discernment when it comes to claims about “new research”.

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