Here’s a new item of concern for parents planning college visits with their high school students: Check for mold and past mold outbreaks in college dorms.
The Impact of Mold in College Dorms
As in fungi. Spores of fungus of various ugly colors that settle in dim, damp spaces.
Like the kind than can often be found in common spaces like campus dorms. In ceiling tiles, behind desks, embedded in furniture, growing in carpets and corners of shared-by-many, wet bathrooms.
Mold is not just unsightly, it is a health hazard to college students.
“Wait,” you may ask, “isn’t it the college’s responsibility to ensure that the dorm where my student will be living is a healthy living space?”
Yes – but parents need to know that mold outbreaks in college dorms is a real threat.
Local news and campus newspapers report of students having to move to temporary housing while the college addresses the outbreak. Moving out in the middle of a busy semester is disruptive enough. But the health problems from mold are the real issue.
Ranging from minor to serious symptoms, mold outbreaks can cause your student to have breathing problems, coughs, colds, headaches, sore throats, asthma attacks, bronchitis and pneumonia.
Most seriously, one student death, in the fall of 2018, was attributed to the symptoms she experienced from the mold outbreak in her freshman dorm.
What are colleges and universities doing to handle this problem?
Colleges Struggle to Solve Increasing Mold Problems in Campus Dorms
A few recent examples of colleges dealing with these outbreaks.
- University of Tennessee, Knoxville – UTennesse’s flagship campus experienced a mold outbreak in fall, 2018. Dorms were closed and over 600 students were evacuated to temporary housing.
- State University of New York, Old Westbury– Mold was discovered spreading through college dorms in October, 2018 causing campus-wide remediation.
- University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia – Over 100 dorms in the Quad were found to contain mold, forcing student relocation in October, 2018.
- University of Maryland, College Park – Hundreds of students reporting mold problems in UMCP dorms in September, 2018 were moved into nearby hotels. UMCP hired mold specialists, installed dehumidifiers and inspected and cleaned dorm rooms.
- Indiana University, Bloomington – Students living in freshman dorms reported health problems due to an outbreak of mold in several dorms in fall, 2018. More than 150 students living in freshman dorms were moved in to temporary housing. Students complained that IU was not doing enough to resolve the problem and was providing misleading information. On November 1, 2018, seven students filed a “class action” (for themselves and on behalf of similarly situated students) lawsuit alleging that Indiana University breached its residential contract with students.
- Howard University, Washington, DC – Students lived in tents in the fall of 2021 to protest conditions and bring attention to what they said was mold in their dorm rooms.
- University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN– The college confirmed mold was detected in collected samples of the ventilation after students complained of illness in 2022. Mold abatement was done to remedy the situation.
Just do a Google search to see that the problem isn’t isolated to the institutions above. Since 2018, several campuses have experienced mold or accusations of ignoring mold. It has been detected all across the country and isn’t limited to a certain region or part of the country.
How Mold in Dorms Affects Student Health and Their Belongings
At first mold may be too small to see, but when it grows, it isn’t pretty.
A college freshman at Penn told the Daily Pennsylvanian about “…black mold spreading out from her room through the entire hallway” and that the “black mold formed in the common room and the bathrooms…and began dripping yellow liquid.” (October 3, 2018)
Beyond medical symptoms, students found mold growing on their bedding, their clothes and their backpacks. Students relocating to temporary housing after mold outbreaks have to leave their belongings behind or have them destroyed.
And while many students experience minor respiratory symptoms, in November, 2018 a first year student at the University of Maryland/College Park, Olivia Paregol, died of complications from adenovirus.
Paregol, whose parents said she had a chronic medical condition that weakened her immune system, had been sick since a mold outbreak in her dorm in September.
Parents Share Their College Children’s Mold Experience in Dorms
Having to deal with a mold outbreak in a dorm hit hard for several members in our Paying For College 101 Facebook group.
Ann M, parent of a freshman at Indiana University urges other parents, especially those with underlying health issues which might make them more susceptible to complications from mold outbreaks to check out housing risks on campus,” no matter how great the education or the program.”
Ann M. further shared her experience, writing about “…living through an ongoing nightmare of a mold outbreak in multiple freshman dorms…our daughter was a vibrant, robust student athlete…She is one of hundreds who has had her freshman first semester irretrievably damaged by this issue.”
Another parent, Dawn Maggio, shared details of how her son’s health and behavior deteriorated freshman year at Florida Atlantic University.
“The year started off normally, we attended orientation, the school gave us the whole charade of how safe the students were, how accommodating the university was, and how everything would be provided in order to ensure student success.
Benjamin went on his way, starting a normal college career filling his life with classes, friends and dorm life. We kept in touch like most modern families do through Facetiming.
Benjamin would often have a cold, or a runny nose, or some kind of sinus issue occurring. I attributed it to the college life, poor sleep, and possibly poor nutrition until one of our Facetime calls, I caught a glimpse of large, black dots all over the ceiling. When inquiring about what I was looking at, Benjamin told me it was mold, which had been present all year.”
“Benjamin mentioned he reported the issue twice, but no one did anything about it. I called the school and complained; I also let them know he had been sick all year. I followed up, and maintenance “took care of it,” whatever that meant….the mold reappeared in his dorm room, and Benjamin started having flu-like symptoms, achy body, fever over 105, couldn’t regulate his body temperature. Forced to take his finals in misery, my son’s college experience was quickly becoming a living hell.”
“When the end of the semester finally came, my son was too weak to physically move out of his dorm. After packing his dorm for him, we took him to urgent care where they did a urinalysis and gave him a full physical. He was prescribed an antibiotic and the doctor informed me he started muscle wasting; this was all becoming clearer as he had lost over 40 pounds.”
(The picture at the left is Benjamin Maggio at the beginning of college. The photo at the right is Benjamin with an oxygen mask, inside his hyperbaric chamber which he now does for treatments, five days a week. )
After a lot of persistence and research on Dawn’s part, she was able to figure out her son was experiencing mold toxicity. Although Benjamin is on a road to recovery, it’s unclear what long-term impact his exposure to mold will have on him.
Dawn’s final advice to other families:
“If you have a child in college or attending this Fall, send an air purifier with them and pay attention to them if they have recurrent sinus or respiratory issues. If you’re in doubt, demand an air quality test for the room. One in four people are predisposed with the mold gene. Mold affects the respiratory system first and attacks the brain second. It isn’t pretty but it is very, very real and becoming more common every day.”
What’s Causing the Mold Problem
Colleges point to several sources for blame.
- Mold in the air, especially in hot and humid climates or those where the summers were unusually hot and humid.
- Higher than usual amounts or rain
- Aging buildings on campus with deferred maintenance needs
In response, some colleges (notably Indiana University) have accelerated plans to renovate and upgrade older dorms.
What Students Can Do About Mold in College Dorms
Some measures can be taken by students.
If students share large bathroom spaces, hang up towels to dry, mop up spills on the floor and make sure rugs and carpets do not stay wet.
Tell staff ASAP if you smell an odd odor or see a soaked carpet. Report possible mold promptly and pester the maintenance staff to respond ASAP.
Make noise on campus if the college or university is not as responsive as it should be. Share your concerns with the local TV station and newspaper.
And go to the Student Health Center right away if you experience any respiratory or other problems that could be mold-related.
What Parents Can Do About Mold in College Dorms
All parents should find out if one or more campus dorms have a history of mold or current problems with it. This should be done in addition to any inspection of the dorms during a college visit.
Those parents of students with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, allergies or weakened immune systems must take extra care.
Parents should not be shy in raising the mold issue with the administration.
Politely but persistently, check with the building/environmental services office and the dean of residential housing.
Google past issues of the campus newspaper for articles about mold problems. Ask current upper-class students if they know of mold problems in the dorms, particularly in the older ones where they lived as freshmen.
When parents visit dorms, be your own building inspectors.
- Are the bathrooms and common area kitchens clean and dry?
- Are students or staff responsible for their maintenance?
- Has the area had recent rain and humidity?
- When were the last housing inspections completed?
If you are visiting an old dorm on a college campus tour, do an even closer examination. Look at its windows, roof and plumbing. Do they look new or relatively new? Ask if windows, heating and air conditioning equipment has been updated.
Mold Problems in College Dorms May Be Here to Stay
Some experts blame climate change for more summers of high humidity and rain contributing to an increase of mold outbreaks on campus (The Chronicle of Higher Education, November 14, 2018.)
Whatever the reasons, colleges are struggling to cope with mold outbreaks. Students and parents should be aware of mold concerns and do what they can to prevent the growing (no pun intended) problem.
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