Horticulturist Says a Little Greenery Can Cure the Office Blues : 'I thought, hey, if it works outdoors, why wouldn't it work indoors?'

Stick a spider plant on your desk, perch a peace lily on your computer, hang a golden pothos by your window, and horticulturist Paul Needleman believes you'll soon be breathing easier.

"Plants take the crap we can't handle out of the air and turn it into food," he explains earnestly.

From his Burbank warehouse, Needleman pushes this philosophy as he peddles plants to those who run industrial factories and corporate beehives and posh hotels.

It's not as easy as it sounds.

Needleman does all right when he touts plants for their beauty. But when he starts in on their healing properties, people generally look at him funny. Plants are for decorating, they say, not for doctoring.

Still, Needleman persists. For he firmly believes that plants help clean the "sick air" that plagues many modern buildings. From his helter-skelter file cabinets, he pulls scientific studies documenting how plants gobble formaldehyde, benzene and cigarette smoke--and convert them into wonderfully pure oxygen.

A few big firms, including Toyota and Sanwa Bank, have placed plants throughout their offices in an effort to boost morale and safeguard health. But most bosses, Needleman says, still view plants as purely aesthetic frills.

"People are very conscious about their health and their environment, but they still take plants for

granted," agrees another true believer, Tony Godfrey of the Olive Hill Greenhouses in Fallbrook. He has spent about $50,000 in the past 10 years printing labels touting his plants as "pollution fighters." Yet somehow, customers still "think silk plants can take the place of real plants," Godfrey complains.

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Needleman founded Citiscape Design with partner Greg Hassen in 1980, and began creating interior gardens for offices, malls, hotels and banks. Soon after, Needleman latched on to research suggesting that plants perk people up--both psychologically and physically.

"At first, I thought it was nuts," he said. "Then I started reading about how people wanted to plant trees on Arbor Day to remove pollutants from the atmosphere. And I thought, hey, if it works outdoors, why wouldn't it work indoors?"

Indeed, while studying pollution inside space capsules, National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist William Wolverton discovered that plants scrub indoor air. They feast on the very fumes that sicken humans.

And office buildings serve up a veritable banquet of contaminants.

Copy machines ooze ozone. Carpets seep formaldehyde. And floor varnishes release trichloroethylene. Although few employees can smell the chemicals, they do notice "sick building syndrome"--which can trigger headaches, asthma, eye irritation and drowsiness.

In seeking to cure sick buildings, Wolverton complained, "architects and building engineers . . . are trying to do it the old-fashioned, mechanical way" by tinkering with ducts and vents, filters and pipes. Instead, he recommends calling in a horticulturist to sprinkle the workplace with luscious lady palms and perky philodendrons.

But Needleman, 43, is having a tough time persuading employers to invest in greenery for health reasons.

So he tries assaulting prospective clients with the gross-out factor: "Would you keep reusing the same bathwater?" he asks them.

If that approach fails, Needleman appeals to the bottom line. Employers who spend greenbacks on greenery will make their competitors--well, green with envy, he says.

Needleman points to several studies demonstrating that dirty indoor air fouls profits as well as lungs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency:

* In an office with 100 white-collar employees, polluted air is responsible for 24 doctor's visits each year.

* Workers typically waste 14 minutes a day trying to compensate for bad air, by stepping outside, resting their eyes or scouring their desks for aspirin.

* Indoor contaminants cause workers to call in sick more often than they otherwise would; for every 10 employees, six sick days a year can be traced to bad air quality.

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Needleman contends that well-placed plants--at least one for every 100 square feet of office space--can turn coughing, wheezing, procrastinating employees into happy, healthy, gung-ho workers.

Tall, thin and cheerfully scatter-brained, Needleman first witnessed the curative power of plants about 15 years ago, when the metal factory where his father had worked for decades changed hands.

The new managers plopped plants in every office. And Needleman's father seemed to blossom. "He looked happier to me," Needleman recalled.

As a boy growing up near Griffith Park, Needleman had always felt drawn to plants. He actually liked working up blisters in the yard. He also enjoyed trailing the Griffith Park ranger on his rounds--and at an early age, vowed he would dedicate his life to the wilderness.

But he turned to horticulture.

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At Toyota Motor Sales in Torrance, senior project administrator Mark Verre has bought into Needleman's concept--to a limited extent. The firm has purchased 2,100 indoor plants--nearly one for every employee. A plant-tender makes daily rounds to check on the greenery, which costs $120,000 a year to maintain.

For all his enthusiasm, Verre said he did not trust plants alone to cure the "gremlins growing in our air-conditioning system." Toyota technicians dismantled the air conditioning system and installed better filters.

"I don't think (indoor landscaping) is a cure for sick building syndrome," Verre said, "but in terms of everyday pollutants like your morning cologne, tobacco and the carbon dioxide people exhale, plants very much help to counteract them. And it's quite a morale booster to have everything all pretty and green."

Paradoxically, sometimes plants end up shoving morale too high. At four Los Angeles office buildings she helps manage, horticulturist Shirley Vaughan has noticed employees becoming a mite too attached to their greenery.

"I usually have to tell people to chill out--they keep saying, 'I want more plants' and I have to tell them, 'No, it's too crowded already,' " Vaughan said with a laugh. Desperate to convert partition walls into ivy-draped nooks, employees begin bargaining with a ferocity that, Vaughan jokes, may actually cut their productivity.

"They start saying, 'I'll throw away those files to make room for another plant! I'll move my desk! I'll sit on the floor!' " Vaughan recounts. "I have to tell them I don't think that will go over too well at the company."

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