For junior Romita Mandal, the pain was incapacitating.
She has a documented allergy to mold and usually gets one respiratory infection each semester, but she had already gotten five this semester. And the cause may have been uncomfortably close—inside her room in Few residence hall.
“Every time I walked into my room I could feel my throat physically close up,” Mandal, who is currently on leave, said. “There was gray fuzzy dripping mold all over my window, and the air smelled pungent with mold. There was also gray mold completely stuck to my desk, and my ceiling was also dripping.”
Mandel sent an email to Housing, Dining and Residence Life, who said they would provide a filter after visiting her room and finding nothing out of ordinary. No filter came, she said, and after Fall Break, she returned to her room to find a “gray residue” on her desk that she could not remove.
She contacted HDRL again, and they bleached the carpet for “mildew,” Mandel said. Eventually, she left for home due to her health concerns.
“It was adversely affecting my health because I couldn’t sleep in my room to get better. Trying to rest in my room just made me more sick,” she said.
Rick Johnson, associate vice president of student affairs for Housing, Dining and Residence Life, said his department works to address every student concern. He encouraged students who do not receive a response within two business days to follow up.
Air around campus
Student complaints about dormitory air quality span all three of Duke’s campuses and have been met with a variety of responses from the University.
Last week, HDRL announced in an email to Central Campus residents that they had contracted with an outside firm to conduct mold testing in every apartment.
On East Campus, several students have said air quality is less than healthy. In a recent Chronicle column, first-year Leah Abrams described her experience feeling sick all year and opening her air conditioning unit to find it full of grime.
After working with HDRL to get it cleaned, she noted that she felt much better.
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“The shift was nearly immediate and incredibly shocking—one night I was desperately taking Benadryl, NyQuil, anything that could help me sleep through my cough,” she wrote. “The next night, I slept like a rock. The air felt clean and my lungs felt clear.”
Abrams also described a friend living in Wilson residence hall who tested positive for “mold-induced bronchitis” and had lungs at 40 percent of their normal capacity.
In Bassett residence hall, first-year Lily Koning described a similar experience with a dirty air conditioner. After she and her roommate had felt sick with “cold-like symptoms” for several weeks, they opened up their unit to find that it was black and dirty. HDRL responded promptly and cleaned the unit. Koning said she has felt better since.
Mandel was not the only student living in Few to report problems. Sophomore Ines Jordan-Zoob, who lives in Baldwin section, reported that she has to clean her air vents every few days or else “black stuff” builds up. Although she has not reported her problem to HDRL, she said she was concerned about her health.
“At college, when people are getting sick anyways, that’s such a detrimental thing to be occurring,” she said.
“I feel like Duke just really doesn’t know how to deal with it,” Jordan-Zoob added, noting that she has heard of people in sorority sections on Central Campus with mold issues as well.
She also posted on Facebook about mold she saw in a friend’s apartment ceiling on Central Campus.
In Delta Delta Delta section, sophomores and roommates Jane Hendrickson and Jamie Swotes noticed problems with their apartment at the beginning of the school year—it smelled bad. They called HDRL to test for mold, and the test came back negative. HDRL did a second test, they said, which came back positive with a high humidity level.
“Everyone who came in was like, 'there is something really wrong,’” Hendrickson said.
Swotes said HDRL attempted several fixes for their apartment, including changes to air vents and painting some walls. Both Hendrickson and Swotes said they felt some cold-like symptoms during this period and that HDRL was more responsive to the inventions by their parents than to those made by them.
Earlier this month, a representative from HDRL came to their door and told them they would have to be relocated and that HDRL would help dry-clean their clothes and move their belongings.
Swotes said HDRL told them that there were high levels of mold, but that there were no dangerous effects. The two were offered locations on West Campus or 301 Swift, but ultimately opted to stay in the Marriott Hotel off campus. Both reported feeling better since they have been away. They said HDRL told them that it could be two or more weeks before they were back in their apartment on Central.
“We’re still kind of anxiously waiting to see if they actually determined what’s happening and if they can fix it,” Hendrickson said.
Johnson noted that relocating students for such issues is rare.
“Whenever we find a problem we address the situation until it is resolved,” he said. “Sometimes the fix is relatively quick and sometimes it is more complex and requires relocation.”
Although many students may describe a lingering cold, Dr. John Vaughn, director of Student Health at Duke, noted that mold is probably not the problem but that students can always visit Student Health if they are worried.
“In a healthy individual, inhaled mold has never been established as a cause of illness,” Vaughn said.
Rather, he suggested that the wide variety of germs on campus, pollen counts and student stress are more likely reasons for upper respiratory illnesses.
“If you say the word scabies, people start itching,” Vaughn said. “There’s just something about that that just makes people think, 'Oh, I’m being infested.’”
In the email to Central Campus residents, Joe Gonzalez, dean for residence life, noted that no toxic mold types have been found in the “close to 50 indoor air quality tests conducted on Central Campus by Duke University’s Office of Environmental and Safety.”
Swotes noted that they understood that the situation was not HDRL’s fault but said she felt frustrated by the tone of Gonzalez’s email.
“The whole year, they kind of made us feel like we were overreacting and being a little bit obnoxious … We kind of felt as if that was unfair, because there clearly was something wrong with our apartment,” Swotes said.
Jamie Cohen contributed reporting.