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Close your eyes for a moment

Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine walking into your office building when, suddenly, your nose picks up fragrances of nature the fresh scent of an orchid or of running water spilling over a moss-laden waterfall. As you remove your jacket and settle into your desk you hear the bellow of a tropical frog. Before your eyes is a three storey high tropical rainforest ecosystem exploding with life: banana trees, bromeliads, moss, mist, fog, water, geckos, chameleons, salamanders and fish existing together harmoniously in a soil-free medium. You take a deep breath of fresh air as you turn on your computer and start the day.

This is not a fairy tale it's a reality that a few progressive companies have created in their workplace. The particular indoor environment described above is known as a "Living Wall," created by Wolfgang Amelung and his company Genetron Systems Inc. This particular wall can be found in the design firm of Club Monaco in Toronto.

Amelung has unveiled a philosophy which will change the way we see, live and work with nature. His work with Living Walls offers an innovative solution to Sick Building Syndrome.

Although the wall is tranquil and beautiful, this indoor ecosystem offers much more. It plays an important role in the future of our health and well being.

Modern air-tight structures born out of minimizing the costs of heating and cooling are unable to breathe or exchange gases with the outside environment. This reduces the air quality and allows the build up of contaminants released by the materials and activities within the building. For example, plywood, foam carpet insulation, furniture made with particle board and some household cleaners emit formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde is associated with headaches, irritation of eyes and/or upper respiratory tract, asthma and throat cancer. Benzene, a well known carcinogen, is present in a family of solvents in paints, varnishes, lacquers, tobacco smoke, gasoline, some plastics, inks and detergents. Health risks associated with benzene include irritation of skin and eyes, headaches, loss of appetite, drowsiness, leukemia and other blood diseases. Trichloroethylene from dry cleaning, inks, paints, varnishes, lacquers and adhesives is believed to be a cause of liver cancer.

People working and living in "sick" buildings and homes may experience general feelings of fatigue, apathy and malaise without being aware that their symptoms are related to their environment. The Environmental Protection Agency from the US reports that concentrations of some contaminants (like formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene) in homes and office buildings exceed outdoor levels by 200 to 500 percent.

Preliminary studies conducted by the University of Guelph demonstrate the huge potential the presence of ecosystems such as Living Walls have as effective biofilters, capable of cleaning the air unlike any mechanical system. Plants can attract toxins from the air and break them down into inert compounds. When air quality is improved, the lung's ability to provide oxygen to every cell is enhanced, immeasurably improving health and well being.

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