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Students fall ill, struggle to get help from HRL after finding mold in East Campus dorm rooms

Several first-year students living on East Campus’s main quad have been sick all year. Their illnesses, they claim, are attributable not to long-lasting symptoms of COVID-19, or even to the first-year plague—but rather to mold growing in their dorm rooms.

Housing and Residence Life is aware of the problem and has reportedly begun a three-pronged response.

“Our approach is focused on (1) inspecting for mold; (2) removing any mold that may be present once found; and (3) decreasing the opportunity for new mold to grow,“ wrote Brandin Howard, associate dean for residence life, in an email to The Chronicle. 

However, students say that HRL has not been as proactive as they claim. 

First-year Nicholas Papavassiliou noticed mold in his Alspaugh dorm room as soon as he moved in. “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,” Papavassiliou recalled.

Papavassiliou said that his room felt significantly more humid than the rest of the rooms on his floor during move-in, so he kept his window open to reduce humidity.

He eventually submitted a work order request due to the mold. When the request was fulfilled, those who cleaned his room pinned the issue on the open window. 

“They came in, they saw the window was open, and they blamed the mold on the open window,” Papavassiliou said. “We [opened the window] to help reduce the humidity that caused the mold in the first place.”

Papavassiliou and his roommate have since kept their window closed. But since then, new mold has developed on their wall.

Papavassiliou submitted another work order form for the wall mold. When HRL staff came to remove it, they spotted additional mold on the ceiling and underneath his roommate’s bed and cleaned that instead.

“They cleaned the mold on the ceiling, but they forgot to clean the mold on the walls,” Papavassiliou said. “So we're probably going to submit another request.”

Papavassiliou has had a lingering cough, which he said has affected his academic performance because it hinders his ability to sleep at night. He said that his doctor concluded that his medical condition was likely due to constant exposure to mold.

Other students had mold in their rooms, but it wasn’t immediately visible to them as it was for Papavassiliou.

First-year Pranay Vure, who lives in Pegram, said that he began waking up in the morning a few weeks ago with severe allergy symptoms, including sneezing, coughing and a sore throat. Initially, he thought that he was having an allergic reaction to food. Over the next few weeks, Vure realized that he was experiencing these symptoms specifically when he was in his room. 

“Every time I woke up in my room, and I stayed in my room for an extended period of time, I would have these symptoms,” Vure said. 

It took talking to a few of his friends in Pegram who were experiencing mold problems themselves to suspect that mold was the issue in his room as well. Vure is allergic to mold, so he decided to look inside his air conditioning unit and found black dots. He compared what he saw to online pictures of mold in air conditioning units.

“I saw a lot of pictures similar to what I was looking at,” Vure said.

Vure called the HRL office, whose representative told Vure that there were many requests to get rid of mold at the time. According to Vure, the representative said she couldn’t guarantee that anything would be done about it soon but would put in a work order nonetheless. 

Vure then told Pegram Residence Coordinator Aaron Lash Jr. about his concerns regarding his mold allergy. According to Vure, Lash dismissed Vure's claims. 

“[Lash] was pretty much like, ‘Okay, I'm sorry to hear that you're sick. But what is in your [air conditioning] unit is not mold.’ I was a little confused because he hadn’t been in my room.”

According to Vure, Lash said what was in his air conditioning unit was dirt and that there hadn’t been an active case of mold in any of the buildings for which he is a residence coordinator, including Pegram. Lash is the residence coordinator for Alspaugh, Bassett, Brown and Pegram. 

Lash did not respond to The Chronicle’s request for comment.

Vure then emailed Dean for Residence Life Debbie Lo Biondo with his father copied on the message. He received a reply from Lo Biondo, but his father was removed from the email chain. According to Vure, the email stated that his room would be inspected that day and a member of HRL would be in contact with him to determine a time for the inspection and after they figured out the problem. 

Vure was never contacted by HRL. However, when he arrived back at Pegram at the end of the day, his friends told him that staff members had been in his room.

“I was never told anything [by HRL]. I just came into my room and it smelled like bleach and I looked in the AC and there were no longer black dots in there,” Vure said. “So I assume they cleaned it. But I have no official statement from the school telling me they cleaned the mold.”

David Shepheard, Pratt ‘91, said that his son and his friends, who live in Brown, were experiencing similar symptoms to Vure when they came home for fall break.

“When my son came home for fall break, he had a cough and sore throat,” Shepheard said. “He was home with a big group of guys from Brown and all of them kind of came home and were a little bit sick. [But] all their symptoms got better. And when they got back to Duke after fall break, [the symptoms] all came back again.” 

This prompted Shepheard to look for mold in his son’s room when he came to Duke for Family Weekend; he found mold in many places around the room. When he contacted HRL, Lo Biondo replied with a message which included a commitment to testing the mold.

“I can appreciate that no college wants to find black mold in their dorms. And when they do, they want to deal with it quickly and quietly. For the last 2 months since school started, that’s basically what Duke has been doing,” wrote Shepheard in a follow-up email to The Chronicle. 

“To HRL’s credit, as soon as I raised a concern to leadership and sent pictures of the extensive black mold that I cleaned out of my son’s Brown dorm room over parent’s weekend, [Lo Biondo] called me within 24 hours and indicated that Duke would begin testing the black mold outbreaks and not just cleaning up the mess quickly and quietly.”

To report suspected mold in their rooms, students should “contact their Campus HRL office via email (you may attach a photo if desired) or by calling them,” according to Howard.


Adway S. Wadekar | University News Editor

Adway S. Wadekar is a Trinity sophomore and a university news editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume. He has also contributed to the sports section.

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