Opinion: AU’s poor handling of mold threatens student health

AU needs a proactive plan to address mold in campus dorms

Opinion: AU’s poor handling of mold threatens student health

When a freshman at the University of Maryland died unexpectedly last November from pneumonia related to adenovirus infection, American University responded promptly by sending an email alert to students about the adenovirus infection. The email included an overview of the virus, an explanation that students with respiratory problems or weak immune systems are more susceptible and a reminder to follow basic hygiene standards. 

However, personal hygiene was not the only preventative measure that might have affected Olivia Paregol’s sudden death. Paregol, along with other students in her dorm, complained of health problems related to mold in their dorms for weeks before she contracted the virus. After her death, her parents and peers suspected that the mold in her dorm room had weakened her immune system and exacerbated the pneumonia, leaving her unable to fight off the infection in time.

What American University’s response neglected to address was that at that same time, AU students had been reporting the same mold-related health symptoms and that the University had  been ignoring and mishandling those reports. 

Two weeks after the email alert, stories were published in the Eagle and WJLA about AU students experiencing mold-related health problems who could not get proper help from the university. Their stories show a startling lack of preparation on the part of the University to combat the threat of mold, especially in light of the controversy surrounding Paregol’s death. 

While the University claims to have responded to the mold within 48 hours, student described how the University waited weeks to respond and failed to remediate the mold. With the University seemingly unwilling to help, students were forced to have their parents call in repeatedly to request help and to go to local media to force the school to take action. 

When the University did respond, the response, in some cases, left students even more at risk. In one case, the University moved a sick student from one moldy room to another. In another case, maintenance workers opened up  the ceiling tiles to reveal a ceiling filled with mold and then left the moldy ceiling exposed

How a university handles mold complaints is crucial because unaddressed mold can present a serious health risk to students. Mold exposure is known to cause respiratory problems and increased asthma attacks and to exacerbate respiratory illnesses like pneumonia and bronchitis. Like the case with adenovirus, people with weakened immune systems or existing respiratory ailments are at an increased risk

Students in these stories reported experiencing respiratory symptoms that they attributed to the mold in the dorms, including excessive coughing, headaches, dizziness and difficulty breathing. 

There is also growing concern that mold could be causing even more severe conditions. Doctors and patient advocates increasingly suspect that mold exposure is a major factor behind myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) which causes disabling fatigue and inflammation. Living in a moldy environment has also been linked with mental health symptoms such as depression.

While the research on the full extent of mold’s impacts is ongoing, exposing students to a substance that is known to have moderate health risks and is increasingly linked with severe health risks constitutes an unnecessarily reckless approach to a preventable environmental issue. 

The health risks presented by mold could also be particularly dangerous on a college campus because of the high likelihood of a misdiagnosis. Symptoms presenting as fatigue, respiratory infections or depression could easily be misdiagnosed or dismissed as allergies or mental health issues. 

A key clue in these cases, symptoms that occur in the moldy environment but go away when students leave (for example, to return home), could be too easily dismissed in students as stress, homesickness or difficulty adjusting to college. 

If mold is hidden behind furniture or ceiling tiles, students and their physicians may inappropriately dismiss early symptoms or continue to pursue inappropriate treatments like allergy medications or therapy as the student gets worse. 

In contrast to AU’s official mold policy, the student complaints documented in these articles reveal an institution without a consistent approach to this serious health problem. In particular, the pattern of waiting to address to mold until parents or media got involved suggests that the university responds to mold when it has the potential to harm the University’s image rather than when it has the potential to harm student health. 

Olivia Paregol’s death should have been an important wake-up call for the University to reevaluate how it handles this health risk. AU should not wait for a second one. As the University plans for the next year, it should take the opportunity to listen carefully to student concerns about mold growth in the dorms and to develop a proactive plan for ensuring that its own stated policy is followed in the future. 

Carly Fabian is a senior in the School of International Service and a staff columnist for The Eagle.


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