Complaints of mold in Central Campus apartments are not corroborated by recent air quality testing, yet student discomfort continues.
The complaints have raised questions about the quality of Central housing and its effect on student health. The mold can exacerbate allergic reactions and make breathing difficult for residents.
Sophomore Julie Rohde was one of many students to report unsatisfactory air quality in their apartments on Central since the beginning of the school year, prompting Housing, Dining and Residential Life to investigate conditions in the apartments.
“The first night I slept there, I woke up and was feeling awful,” Rohde said. “[I had a] sore throat, itchy eyes [like] allergies.”
Multiple reports came from the sorority section on Pace Street where Rohde lives, said Dean for Residential Life Joe Gonzalez. The complex was recently tested, and the ventilation systems were cleaned in response to reports. Gonzalez noted that testing of the ventilation systems in Central apartments occerurs only in response to specific reports.
A sample of apartments from Rohde’s section was tested for air quality, Gonzalez said. The results of the tests indicated that the apartments were safe for residents.
Despite the outcome of the tests, HDRL hired an outside contractor, North Carolina-based Afterdisaster, to clean all the ducts in the Pace section.
“We felt this was one way we could try to take action that could hopefully make an important difference in terms of how people felt about their environment,” Gonzalez said.
Prior to the air quality testing and duct cleaning in several apartments, Rohde said she had already contacted HDRL soon after moving in to her apartment in August. She noted that HDRL’s response to her initial complaint and maintenance request was not helpful.
“All [the maintenance worker] did was spray Tilex on the outside part—the cover—[of the duct] so obviously that did nothing,” she said.
After she was left unsatisfied by the work done by the maintenance staff, Rohde independently hired an outside company, AdvantaClean, to come in and inspect her apartment. The company vacuumed out the dust and mold from the vents, Rohde said.
The receipt for the cleaning service included remarks written by the inspector.
“The system is around 20 years old. Looks like it was never cleaned. Also found mold along with excessive dust build-up,” it read.
Gonzalez noted that the cleaning recently completed by Afterdisaster in Rohde’s house was the first air duct cleaning to happen “in some time” in the Central apartment buildings, which are nearly 40 years old.
“It might be time to take some of those steps,” he said in an interview early September, prior to the cleaning by Afterdisaster.
Junior Rachel James, who lives in a different section on Central from Rohde, noted that she became ill on her first day in her apartment.
“The day I moved in I was totally fine in the morning—we started at 8 a.m.—and then around 3 or 4 [p.m.] I really started to notice that my head and my throat both felt really swelled up,” she said.
James noted that multiple other students living in her building were sick around the same time, but she said she cannot be sure that she and her housemates’ illnesses were definitely a result of air quality in the apartments.
Although her illness is no longer a concern, James said she wonders if she has simply become accustomed to unclean conditions.
Gonzalez noted in a more recent interview that HDRL is currently making plans to clean the ducts in apartments across Central Campus, likely to happen next summer. An outside company will likely be hired to perform the work, he said.
HDRL is also formulating plans to complete other renovations next summer in some apartments on Central—which may include new flooring and added light—and the ventilation cleaning may coincide with those renovations, Gonzalez added. He noted that test results have not led HDRL staff to believe that more immediate cleaning is necessary.
The reports on Central may relate to both an uptick in complaints about allergens and air quality and the growing prevalence of allergies among the Duke student body, Gonzalez noted. The large number of window air conditioning units used on East and West campuses is another indicator of this trend, and this academic year was not an exception.
“I can’t explain why some students felt like they were suffering some symptoms when they moved in, whether it’s due to elevated sensitivity or due to something that did get addressed when we cleaned the ducts,” he said. “It’s clear that a number of women felt like they had some kind of health reaction.... We wanted to do everything we could to assure all students that they’re living in an appropriate place.”