Students raise health concerns about mold in McDowell Hall

Residents demand further action from director of housing

Students raise health concerns about mold in McDowell Hall
Sophomore John Stolle found water damage and what could possibly be black mold in his sixth-floor dorm room in McDowell Hall.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify and correct information that Elizabeth Deal provided about an identified water leak in early October.

Students expressed concern over American University’s handling of an alleged mold problem in McDowell Hall after residents reported health issues that they believe may be linked to mold exposure.

Some students experiencing coughing, sore throats and congestion are calling on the administration and Housing and Residence Life to take their complaints seriously.

Students’ experiences with mold and mold-related illnesses

Sophomore John Stolle, who lives on the sixth floor of McDowell, filed a 2Fix maintenance complaint about what he thought was either mold or water damage on a ceiling tile in his dorm room, which he described as a brown-orange color with some black spots. The ceiling tile was replaced by 2Fix, Stolle said, but the damage reappeared and the tile had to be replaced again about one week later. Stolle was told by 2Fix that the cause was a leak from an air conditioning unit, but his room was never tested for mold, according to Stolle and his roommate.

Sophomore Parthav Easwar moved into the fourth floor of McDowell nearly nine weeks ago and noticed what appeared to be mold on one of his ceiling tiles at the end of September. Since then, he said he has had persistent coughing, throat tightening, difficulty breathing, congestion, lethargy and regular headaches, which he said has made sleeping difficult.

Easwar said he is confident his illness is due to an outside factor since he takes allergy relief medication, and an ordinary cold would not persist for longer than one month. 

Taylor-Jeffery M. Doone, a sophomore living on the third floor of McDowell, suffered from bronchitis ever since he moved in at the end of August. Doone said he got a chest X-ray on Sept. 28 to identify why he had been coughing. While his X-ray came back negative for any bacterial infection, Doone said he was diagnosed with reactive airway disease. His doctors said that although the cause of Doone’s illness could be an allergen, it could be mold-related due to his mold allergy.

Student responses

Doone emailed Director of Housing Ryan P. Cohenour and President Sylvia Burwell on Sept. 24 detailing his concerns regarding the alleged mold issue. One such concern was a rotting baseboard on the third-floor hallway of McDowell. After being exposed to open air for two days, 2Fix allegedly flipped the timber over and nailed it back on the wall, which Doone said was made evident by the old pry marks and nail holes.

Doone said he requested an interview with Cohenour, during which Cohenour denied the presence of mold in McDowell.

“I felt that the administration was doing nothing,” Doone said. “After seeing the administration gaslight us in my interview with the director of housing, there needed to be action taken to hold them accountable for our living conditions.”

Doone created the Instagram account @moldowell on Sept. 26 to document photo evidence of the hall’s mold issue. 

“I think it’s ridiculous that someone can go to a meeting with the director of housing and be told that their bronchitis is not caused by the mold poisoning,” Easwar said. “The denial without even checking and the lack of concern for seeing if there’s actually mold at all is egregious.”

Easwar’s parents emailed an administrator in the office of housing about their concerns regarding Easwar’s health on Sept. 26 and received an email one day later denying the presence of mold in McDowell.

The same day, Housing and Residence Life sent an email to students living on campus encouraging them to report facility or maintenance issues to 2Fix.

McDowell and Cassell Hall Council President Whit Ford said he hopes to enact change through the hall council and hosted a meeting on Sept. 28 for McDowell residents to voice their concerns about the mold. 

“There is a legion of students who are making complaints about the mold, who have put in complaints to 2Fix, who have communicated with proper authorities through AU administration, and yet, there is nothing being done,” Ford said. “That is a failure on AU’s part in creating a conducive learning environment for its students.”

Students living in Anderson and Leonard Halls have also reported similar conditions. Anderson residents have discovered possible mold and Leonard has sustained water damage, according to photo evidence from the Instagram account @stoolamerican.

2Fix and administrative action

On Oct. 6, HRL sent a second maintenance concern email denying the alleged mold. 

“There has been no physical evidence of microbial growth mold in McDowell Hall, by both visual and suspected location air quality inspections,” the email said. HRL also recommended that students submit a 2Fix request, leave at least 12 inches of clearance around HVAC units and keep their windows closed to avoid condensation.

2Fix planned to conduct a comprehensive indoor environmental quality test “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the email. The following evening, sophomore Arielle Hershkowitz recorded video evidence of a ceiling tile in the McDowell lobby that had collapsed and broken due to water damage.

HRL sent a third maintenance concern email on Oct. 11, which said that a third-party industrial hygienist team had performed an air quality test throughout McDowell. The University did not specify the name of the third-party team.

“During their investigation of numerous student rooms, there was no microbial growth observed,” the email said. “Each of the hygienists direct read instruments determined that there were no deficiencies detected affecting comfort of occupants or building systems.”

Assistant Vice President for Community and Internal Communications Elizabeth Deal told The Eagle on Oct. 18 that facilities maintenance had identified a water leak on the third floor in previous weeks. Deal said corrective maintenance action was taken, repairing the water leak cause and replacing water-damaged ceiling tiles, carpets and baseboards outside of the men's bathroom shower wall.

"No microbial growth was observed," Deal wrote.

Dr. David Reitman, medical director at the Student Health Center, did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Deal answered for him, providing a quote previously sent to students in a HRL email.

“Upper respiratory infections, including sinusitis and allergen illnesses are common throughout the academic year,” Reitman said. “Upper respiratory symptoms have been seen in all residence halls, as well as off-campus housing. While some students have expressed concerns about mold during their University Health Center visits, McDowell Hall residents’ infection rate and symptoms reflect that of the entire community.”

Despite the maintenance concern emails, McDowell residents said that they are unsatisfied with the amount of time that it took for HRL to take action. 

“I just want students and my peers to be heard when it comes to their health,” Doone said.

Editor’s Note: Zoe Bell is a resident of McDowell Hall, but has not personally been affected by the alleged mold. Bell was not involved in the reporting of suspected mold-related incidents that took place on her floor. The Eagle believes that first-hand knowledge of the suspected mold does not constitute a conflict of interest.

zbell@theeagleonline.com and jyoung@theeagleonline.com

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