A living wall in Marriott Library would improve study sessions

Every winter, as Salt Lake’s notorious inversion sets in, blanketing our beautiful valley in a thick, toxic haze, air quality becomes a common topic of conversation. You start to see people wearing those paper dentist masks around to filter out the cloudy contamination. The irony is that we are exposed to about two to five times more pollution indoors than outdoors, year round.

Most of us can actually feel the adverse effects of the winter fog. It can irritate our eyes, noses and throats, make us cough, give us headaches and drain our energy. Personally, when I experience these symptoms in winter, I tend to attribute them to the clearly unclear air.

Yet I often find myself rubbing my weary eyes, massaging my pounding temples and knocking back coffee to fight fatigue after I’ve been in the library for a few hours. Although I’ve come to accept these discomforts as indicators of mental exertion and solid studying, it turns out they are actually symptoms of Sick Building Syndrome.

According to the EPA, SBS describes “situations in which building occupants experience acute health and comfort effects that appear to be linked to time spent in a building.” SBS is primarily caused by poor ventilation and volatile organic compounds. Carpeting, upholstery, manufactured wood products (i.e. pretty much all of our furniture), copy machines, computers, printers, paint and cleaning agents are just a few common sources of VOCs. The health effects of VOCs depend on the degree and length of exposure. The Marriott Library, as well as many study spots on and off campus, are teeming with VOC emitters, and many of us bunker down in these buildings for hours on end. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, even short-term exposure to VOCs has been shown to cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, nausea and memory impairment. Not the ideal conditions for studying, socializing or cranking out a paper.

How can we prevent the uncomfortable consequences of SBS? A proactive group of students have proposed plants as a solution to our indoor pollution problems. Not just a few pots of common caladiums, either, but an entire wall of living, breathing, air-filtering vegetation.

Living walls are literally walls with plants growing on and out of them. They look like a wall you would expect to see in a secret hedge maze but with more plant diversity. In addition to the awesome aesthetic advantages afforded by living walls, they also soak up plethoras of carcinogenic VOCs, making us healthier and allowing us to think harder. Plus, studies have shown that plants can inspire creativity, reduce stress and make us generally happier. Who wouldn’t want these incredible benefits?

Genie Bey, Rachael Bradford, Brian Tonetti, Tena Vinson and Katherine Wegner are members of the Living Wall Team, and they have submitted a proposal to the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund to install a living wall on campus. The proposal is for a living wall in the Marriott Library. If approved, the wall will consist of a stainless steel structure covered with felt pockets, which will be made of 100 percent recycled material. Tropical and sub-tropical plants, chosen for their powerful air pollutant filtering properties, abilities to resist pests and minimal maintenance requirements, would comprise the refreshing, floral framework. The Living Wall Team asserts that, in addition to the profusion of positive health benefits, the project would “aid in nurturing a culture of sustainability on our campus” and “drive the creativeness required to inspire innovation and collaboration.” Plus, it would look really cool. As students living in an area where air quality is already a problem, we should be excited and supportive of such a beneficial and easily implementable concept. Let’s hope the Living Wall Team’s proposal is approved soon, so we can all start breathing a little easier.

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