We’re currently facing a nationwide failure to accept and address the growing health crisis caused by mold in college dorms. This issue is slowly gaining traction throughout the media, student bodies, and parenting groups. Yet it has still not received the widespread attention it deserves for impacting the health and education of a growing number of students across the country.
This health hazard is one no student should have to deal with while striving to excel and paying a hefty bill for their degree.
How Big of a Problem is Mold in College Dorms
In short, "on the rise" is putting it lightly. A massive number of schools are making their way onto the list of universities with indoor mold growth issues. And there’s no discrepancy in which schools develop a problem and which do not.
Public vs private and four-year vs two-year play no role in this indoor contaminant’s agenda. Any dorm on any campus is on the docket for potentially hazardous areas for students with poor indoor air quality. It’s the ultimate equal-opportunity event.
Nicholas Papavassiliou, a first-year at Duke University, told The Chronicle, “When I went into the room, the ceiling had cracks all over it, which it still does. And there was black mold coming out of it.”¹
Megh Snelling, a student at Penn State University, told The Daily Collegian, “We noticed there was a lot of mold all over the place — it was covering the ceiling, and it seemed to be stemming from our vent so we stopped using our air conditioning.”²
Just taking a look at the past 3 years, these are some of the universities that have reported issues with students experiencing mold in college dorms. Keep in mind that this is not the full list.
Penn State University 2021: Multiple students alerted campus housing staff that mold was growing on their belongings, walls, and underneath beds in the dorms. Many developed chronic symptoms after moving into the room.
Harvard University 2019: Students in Dunster campus housing were relocated to temporary accommodations after discovering an outbreak of mold.
Dartmouth College 2021: Students found mold in multiple dorm rooms across campus and reported adverse health effects that persisted even after the rooms were cleaned. The college discovered mold in the HVAC system, ceilings, caulking, and bathrooms.
Vanderbilt University 2022: Students in five different dorms discovered mold in over 240 rooms. Stachybotrys was among the species found. Several reported feeling chronically ill after moving into the rooms.
Arizona State University 2022: Dozens of families attribute their childrens’ chronic illness to mold issues in dorms around campus. Independent testing from the families found several species of mold in rooms, including in air vents.
Georgetown University 2019: Multiple students reported finding mold in college dorms and mentioned developing symptoms after moving in.
Ohio State University 2021: Students reported mold on belongings and surfaces in the dorm after moving in. The university offered to relocate those affected by the outbreak.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2019: Students temporarily relocated due to mold found in the HVAC units of the privately-owned residence hall off-campus. Many students reported feeling chronically ill after moving into the building.
Michigan State University 2022: Students with chronic symptoms began to suspect mold in their AC unit after hearing about other colleges suffering from similar toxic environments. More students in other dorms across campus came forth with their issues with indoor mold growth as well and reported dealing with chronic symptoms.
University of Georgia 2021: UGA said it has received 244 reports of potential mold since the start of the fall semester. Many students reported feeling unwell after moving into their new dorm rooms.
Howard University 2021: Students camped outside for weeks protesting the conditions of the university’s dorms. Many stated that they felt unwell after moving into these toxic environments. The university later confirmed that mold was found in dozens of dorm rooms across campus.
Virginia Commonwealth University 2021: Over 400 students were moved after elevated levels of mold were found in a freshman dormitory, including on surfaces like blinds, water fountains, sinks, air vents, and corners. Parents reported that their children were complaining about chronic symptoms after moving into the space.
University of Mississippi 2022: Since 2018, university students and parents have complained about the conditions in the dorms across campus, including sickness due to mold growth in dormitory rooms, showers, and bathrooms. Students said that the poor air quality in these buildings has yet to be properly addressed and they continue to experience adverse health reactions.
William and Mary University 2022: 41 students in one of the dorms were relocated due to the contamination levels in the building. Campus staff attributed the widespread growth and contamination to an AC malfunction.
George Washington University 2021: Students reported mold in college dorms across campus. It was growing in their walls, from their vents, and in their kitchens and bathrooms. Many individuals expressed concerns over feeling ill and attributed it to the poor indoor air quality and toxic living spaces. “The mold issue is not a new thing at GW,” a student told The Washington Post.
Why is Mold in College Dorms So Common?
Mold typically needs two basic things to begin growing: a food source and a water source.³
Any indoor environment, including college housing, has plentiful food sources for a colony. Organic particles floating in the air, structural components, and student belongings are a few simple examples.
That leaves moisture as the missing component. When it comes to these aging buildings that aren’t always properly maintained and are constantly full of young adults (who don’t always clean as they should), numerous issues can pop up and create opportunities for contaminant growth.
A few common issues leading to mold in college dorms include:
- Burst pipes
- High humidity indoors
- Lack of ventilation in kitchens and bathrooms
- Aging HVAC systems, pipes, caulk, grout, and plumbing
- Improper building maintenance, such as HVAC system servicing
- Lack of cleaning
- Inadequate air quality measures
If a spore lands on a surface with moisture present for 24–48 hours, it will put down roots called hyphae and transition into a living colony. This is a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to proper prevention and remediation.
One or a multitude of these moisture-filled scenarios has led to academic housing becoming the perfect pietri dish for the over 100,000 species of mold. And when one colony is established inside an indoor space, the chances of more developing increase exponentially.
Why is Mold in College Dorms a Big Deal?
This contamination isn’t just unsightly.
As the articles above show, mold in college dorms can wreak havoc on the health of students living inside them. While students are expected to experience some stress related to course load and navigating life away from home, dealing with wellness problems most likely is not a factor being considered in that equation.
Indoor mold growth is a problem for a variety of reasons, despite the common misconception that "since mold is ubiquitous/everywhere, it’s not a problem in our indoor spaces."
True, mold colonies can be found all over the world. They play a huge role in nature, helping in necessary processes such as decomposition. As such, it’s impossible to avoid coming into contact with particles of mold. That being said, indoor mold growth is in no way the same situation.
The Distinction of Indoor Mold Growth
As mold grows, it reproduces asexually by releasing microscopic spores into the surrounding environment. ⁴’⁵ This is the primary reason why one colony frequently leads to more developing elsewhere in the structure. The spores are small enough to ride the air current to other areas in the building. If this new space has the conditions needed for growth, that spore will transition into another colony, further adding to the microscopic particles in the space.
Some species of mold also create microscopic toxins called mycotoxins when threatened.⁶ These particles are toxic to the human body. Interestingly, while these are regulated in our food products, they are not regulated in our indoor environments.
The longer a colony grows, the more particles it releases into the surrounding environment. In nature, this isn’t a problem. There’s a vast world for the particles to disperse through. An indoor environment is not the same situation. A majority of those particles remain trapped within the walls of the building the colony is growing in, lowering the indoor air quality and contaminating the surfaces within.
As an added issue, where there’s mold growth, there are often bacteria found nearby as well.⁷ They grow in relatively similar conditions, so this is yet another microorganism releasing microscopic particles into the surrounding indoor space.
The problem with these contaminants is the size of the particles in question. Measured in a unit called micron, which is 1/1000th of a millimeter (the tiny lines on rulers), mold spores, mycotoxins, and bacteria are all small enough to enter the body. The longer someone is in an indoor environment with this contamination, the more these microscopic particles are being inhaled, ingested, and absorbed into the body.⁸
Considering that the average individual breathes 20,000 breathes a day, it puts into perspective why exposure can impact the body so greatly and why mold in college dorms is such a big deal. Because college students spend quite a bit of time in their rooms sleeping, studying, and relaxing, it opens the door for this toxic environment to wreak havoc on their health.
How Mold in College Dorms Can Affect You or Your Child
The difficult thing is that no two people respond to exposure the same way. While one student dealing with mold in a college dorm may experience the occasional chronic fatigue, another may develop over 20 chronic symptoms. A third may not develop any noticeable symptoms at all.
Lack of research plays an enormous role in our lack of understanding of exposure to indoor contamination such as mold, mycotoxins, and bacteria. That being said, various factors play a role in making this a difficult issue to pin down.
Some of the factors influencing exposure-related responses include:
- Genetics: Some individuals are predisposed to be more sensitive to mold exposure. For example, a few studies have started linking those with the HLA-DR as hypersensitive because their body’s immune system does not respond properly to toxins such as mycotoxins.⁹’¹⁰
- Immune system status: Those with a compromised or developing immune system can not keep up with the onslaught of foreign particles as well as those with a healthy immune system can. Oftentimes, they’ll experience adverse health reactions faster and to a greater extent.
- Presence of mycotoxins: These tiny toxins can pack a punch and a growing body of research points to the long list of symptoms they can cause. Interestingly, while mycotoxins are regulated in our food, they are not regulated in our indoor environments.
- Length of exposure: The longer an individual is exposed, the more particles enter the body. This can eventually lead to an overloaded immune system, adverse health reactions, and toxic buildup.
- Volume of exposure: Similar to the length of exposure, if there’s a significant amount of colonized mold within a home, that is directly related to a higher number of foreign particles entering the body. This event can also lead to toxic buildup and adverse health reactions.
Another issue is that exposure to toxic environments like mold in college dorms creates a multi-system response that can affect different areas of the body and can work in relation to other autoimmune conditions. This makes diagnosis difficult for medical professionals unfamiliar with this issue.
An example of this occurred at the University of Maryland’s College Park. One family is suing the campus after their daughter with a pre-existing health condition perished after a mold-related incident combined with an interaction with the adenovirus. They claimed that the campus did far less than it should have to handle the mold problem and the spread of the virus that ultimately led to her death.¹¹
All of this being said, there are some common symptoms often related to mold exposure. If a student develops these while at school, they may be dealing with mold in a college dorm.
These symptoms include:
- Runny nose
- Respiratory issues
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Mood swings
- Hormone imbalance
- Skin issues
- Digestive problems
Every situation and the symptoms that develop are unique, though. ¹²’¹³’¹⁵’¹⁶’¹⁷’¹⁸’¹⁹
The key thing to keep in mind is that as long as the exposure to mold in college dorms continues, the chronic symptoms will persist. All of those particles are continuing to make their way into the body, raising the toxic load and triggering the immune system. Healing can only begin when they’re no longer living in a hazardous environment.
Lack of Awareness Leading to A Failure to Respond Properly
Instead of focusing on the next chapter of their lives and preparing for the working world, students are increasingly feeling unwell and bogged down due to mold in college dorms. This is the result of prolonged exposure.
One of the leading causes of this is a general lack of awareness and consideration when it comes to creating healthy indoor environments for students that aren’t suffering from contamination. Tack on the lack of regulations and laws regarding indoor mold growth and it’s created the current situation we’re faced with now: chronically ill students across the world.
Proactive prevention aside, the main obstacle students are facing is schools’ failure to respond appropriately to this contamination.
These are a few scenarios from recent real-life events regarding mold in college dorms.
Multiple students living in Vanderbilt University housing reported several cases of indoor mold growth this year. They did not report what specific remediation techniques were used, but did release this response.
“When the university receives a report of mold, our personnel follow established protocols based on the standard of care for mold remediation and guidance provided by the on-staff industrial hygienist. First, the space is inspected to locate mold and understand its cause. Second, remediation is performed to remove the mold damage and address the underlying cause of the water or condensation. Third, the space is remediated in accordance with best practices, including the use of an EPA-registered antimicrobial to eliminate and prevent mold, and an industrial-grade HEPA filter while the work is completed to remove any fine particles. As necessary, we will also have environmental testing conducted by an unaffiliated lab to test air quality after the mold has been remediated. Testing air quality through an accredited lab is the industry-accepted standard for assessing whether airborne mold levels suggest a fungal problem indoors when compared to outdoor testing results. Indoor results also are assessed for any significant elevation of individual mold species. The goal of testing is to ensure that the remediation efforts were successful or if further investigation is warranted.”
There are a few problems here.
- EPA-registered antimicrobials will help remove mold but have no efficacy to prevent mold, especially if there is an underlying cause that was not properly addressed.
- B) HEPA filters are not as effective at removing fine particles as they claim. They simply control the airflow during remediation and remove some of the particles, but not all, in the process. Without proper engineering controls and decontamination of the entire space, a majority of those particles will still be in the dust of the dorms and be recirculated. This can easily transfer to other sources of moisture and begin to grow, which can lead to the problem coming right back.
- Air testing should never be used as the only method of determining fungal growth. As mold disperses into the air from the source, the further away from the source you test, the more "normal" things are likely to appear. Other means of testing, such as surface sampling and wall or ceiling cavity samples, are much more helpful in identifying if mold was truly removed properly. This should also be the standard inspection process to determine if contamination exists in a space in the first place. A mold inspection should also span the entire building and be incredibly comprehensive as well as utilize a multitude of methodologies. Other contaminants such as bacteria and mycotoxins should also always be a part of the equation.
- Timing is everything. As the response to students and addressing the problem took weeks to months, this increased the amount of contamination throughout the space and prolonged exposure.
In the same school, a student received a letter requesting that she and her roommate evacuate the room for up to three hours while the campus staff cleaned the “affected areas.”
- There was no mention of proper containment during this “cleaning process.” Many of these particles are microscopic and can be kicked up while the colony is being removed. This can lead to an increased level of contamination throughout the space as well as on the student’s belongings.
- There was no mention of decontaminating student belongings. Even if the colony is properly removed, exposure will continue as long as those particles exist in the space, and students may continue to feel ill.
At Duke University, a student put in a maintenance request for mold in a window AC unit. Back and forth correspondence went on for some time before campus staff came to resolve the issue without alerting the student to their intention to eliminate the mold. The student reported that the room smelled of bleach, but that was all of the information he received. This is definitely not how mold in college dorms should be addressed.
- Bleach is not an effective agent to use to eliminate mold.²⁰ Killing the fungus is not enough. All of the particles must be removed in order for proper remediation. On top of this, bleach is not effective in removing mold from any porous or semi-porous surfaces as the roots grow within the fibers.
- The belongings in the room should have been properly decontaminated. The particles released from the mold in the window ac unit would have been blown all throughout the room and on the student’s belongings.
- There’s no mention as to whether or not the source leading to the problem was resolved. If it was not, the mold could grow right back once again. As other students in the dorm continued to report issues with mold growth, this could indicate the problem was not resolved.
A student at Penn State alerted the university’s housing department about a visible mold issue in their dorm and was suffering from adverse effects due to exposure. After quite a while, staff came to clean the room and gave the students a dehumidifier.
- The first response to the student’s complaint was that the mold “wasn’t active” and wouldn’t cause a problem, so they were safe to continue living in the dorm. Active or not, those microscopic particles still exist in the environment and can trigger chronic symptoms. Microscopic particles like mycotoxins and spores, if present, will not be visible to the naked eye. On top of this, if a moisture-related event occurs, mold can transition back into a living colony given the right conditions.
- There’s no mention of a mold inspection inside of the room or elsewhere in the building. As many individuals expressed concerns about mold issues, the problem could exist on a large-scale, such as the ventilation system, which will continue to filter contamination all throughout the building.
- The resident reported that mold still existed on the ceiling even after the cleaning process. Again, any particles, even dead mold, can contribute to prolonged exposure. Additionally, semi-porous and porous items can have roots growing into the surface. Even if the surface mold is killed, the roots left behind will allow that mold to grow right back on the ceiling.
- The students were not alerted to the fact that their belongings needed to be properly decontaminated. There’s also no mention as to whether the room was properly decontaminated either.
The list could go on, but these issues highlight the lack of understanding in these institutions regarding how to properly handle these problems.
Bringing Indoor Environments Into the Wellness Conversation
The EPA states that the average American spends 90% of their time indoors.²⁰ What’s in these spaces matters. If they’re packed full of toxins and microscopic particles, that will directly impact the state of our health.
With college students immersed in figuring out this next chapter of their lives, battling the effects of toxic living conditions should not be interfering with their success. Their sleep, academic performance, and extracurricular activities can all be affected by this situation. It’s time for change to occur and for higher educational institutions to take this health hazard into consideration when it comes to protecting their tuition-paying students.
Creating better awareness, consulting with experts, and drafting proper protocols should be at the top of this year’s agenda for colleges and universities worldwide.
For information on what you can do to protect your child or yourself while living in a dorm, take a look at this post.
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