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Penn State students question if mold in North Halls is affecting residents’ health

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North Halls

North Halls on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021 in University Park, Pa.

During the first week of September, Penn State student Lucy Farmen noticed her belongings began to be covered in mold under her bed in Holmes Hall — located in North Halls.

“I went to grab something under my bed, and I noticed [my] Birkenstocks and snow boots… were just covered in mold,” Farmen (freshman-division of undergraduate studies) said. “It was so weird because I had never even worn the Birkenstocks before.”

As Farmen continued inspecting her room, she said she grabbed a hoodie covered in mold from her desk.

“I realized there was all this mold covering my desk, so I wiped it down with bleach,” she said. “Then I came back the next day, and it was back.”

Farmen said she and her roommate were experiencing difficulty breathing, so they asked Penn State Housing to change the air filter. Even after it was changed, however, they looked inside and found it covered in mold and dust.

“We contacted housing about it, and at first, we did the [Maintenance Request], and they came completely geared up with gloves and masks on, but they told us that we were safe to sleep there,” she said.

However, Farmen said she hasn’t felt safe in her dorm, so she’s been living at her boyfriend’s for most of the semester to avoid being in her room.

She also said she’s been sick for most of the semester, and she believes it correlates to the mold.

“Today, I found out I have pneumonia, and the doctor told me I’ve had it for at least a month,” she said. “My breathing always gets worse when I walk in the room, so I think it may be partially from that.”

Farmen said she is especially worried about health concerns relating to mold because of a personal connection to a previous incident.

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Olivia Paregol was an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Maryland when she died from adenovirus in 2018.

One of Farmen’s friends was Paregol’s roommate.

According to a Washington Post article published in August, Parengol’s family is in the process of suing the University of Maryland for allegedly neglecting to properly address the mold issue in residence halls, which led to nearly 600 students evacuating a dorm building in 2018.

University of Maryland’s former Health Center Director David McBride had acknowledged that “mold can cause respiratory irritation that may increase susceptibility of any viral infection,” according to the Washington Post article.

Farmen said she was struck by the comparisons of this incident to what she has experienced this fall.

“It’s just crazy because the story matches up so much with what we’re experiencing,” she said.

Megh Snelling lives in Leete Hall in North in a suite with three roommates. Her two suitemates noticed mold before she did.

“We had just gotten an email about how North Residence Halls were having a mold issue from Housing,” Snelling (freshman-music education) said. “So [Penn State Housing] came and gave our roommates a dehumidifier and sprayed [their] room.”

Snelling said she and her roommate then decided to inspect their personal room to see if their side of the suite also contained mold.

“We noticed there was a lot of mold all over the place — it was covering the ceiling, and it seemed to be stemming from our vent so we stopped using our air conditioning,” she said. “We called up [Housing], and at first they didn’t really believe us, and they told us it could just be dust.”

Snelling said she insisted she believed mold was in the room, so members from Penn State Housing gave them a dehumidifier.

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“The air quality still didn’t feel right, and there was still mold all over the ceiling,” she said. “So we called up Housing again, and a guy came and told us the mold wasn’t active.”

Snelling said she wasn’t confident the mold wouldn’t spread and was worried about her health around it — especially because she’s immunocompromised.

“Every time I go to the doctor, they diagnose me with pneumonia,” she said. “I was in the emergency room on Monday, and they diagnosed me with pneumonia and told me it was probably because of the mold.”

Snelling said her doctors think an allergen is causing a pneumonia hypersensitive situation and said the only allergen she’s consistently being exposed to is mold.

“The mold needs to be tested,” she said. “My doctors keep saying they need to know what type of mold so they can figure out if I’m allergic to it.”

In addition to providing a dehumidifier, Snelling said Penn State Housing came and cleaned most of the mold from their ceiling — after her mother called and emailed the office several times. She said spots of mold continue to linger on the ceiling, though.

“I think the dehumidifier works, but I’m not sure if it actually helps the mold since I think it’s in the air vents,” Snelling said.

Snelling said she doesn't feel safe living in Leete Hall, and she and her roommate are looking to live elsewhere next fall due to this issue.

“I feel like we’re all in an unsafe environment right now,” she said. “My roommate and I have both been having a lot of health issues that are respiratory-related, and I don’t understand how they can say, ‘Oh, this mold obviously needs to be cleaned,’ but are fine with students still living here.”

Hannah Ratthe also lives in Leete Hall and said she is also suspicious that her lingering illness this semester is connected to the presence of mold in her dorm.

“I was sick for a very long time,” Ratthe (freshman-music education) said. “I got over my cold, but I continued to have a cough for a good month, and I think it may have been due to the mold on my desk.”

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Ratthe said she didn’t notice the mold until Housing came in and conducted an inspection in all of the dorms in North Halls because of other complaints.

“That’s when they found the mold,” she said. “I personally didn’t know it was mold until they told me that’s what it was.”

Ratthe said the main spot mold was growing in her dorm was on top of her desk — she didn’t notice it at first because her desk was covered with personal items.

“I think it’s awful,” Ratthe said. “Having mold is a very big health risk, so I personally feel like [Penn State] should do a better job with fixing the ventilation system — that would be nice for [the university] to do that.”

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said via email that Housing has checked all rooms in North Halls for signs of moisture or mold, “addressing any issues discovered with a safe and effective sanitizer that cleans and kills mold spores.” In addition, Powers said dehumidifiers were also provided to residents as needed.

“[Housing] brought a dehumidifier, but that actually caused other issues with our breathing because it’s constantly on 24/7, and it gives us dry throats,” Ratthe said. “We decided to just turn it off, but I think we still have mold.”

Housing staff members, who have been keeping an eye on the situation, report the current humidity in the buildings is at 43%, “which is appropriate and desirable for this time of year,” Powers said.

Ratthe’s roommate, Alex LeCrone, also said she was frustrated by the way Penn State has handled mold in dorms.

“We’re paying a s--- ton of money to live in an already low-quality dorm, and now it’s impacting our health, which really sucks,” LeCrone (freshman-music education) said. “The university shouldn’t be exploiting us like this.”

Powers said the health and safety of students is the university’s No. 1 priority, and the mold can be attributed to an increase of rainfall, which has created humid and moist conditions.

Penn State Housing indicated it received information on two moisture incidents in North Halls in the past two weeks and has followed up with those residents, cleaning and sanitizing the rooms on Nov. 1, Powers said.

Powers also said, “overall, it appears the issue has been identified and addressed.” She said if any resident is experiencing issues, they can fill out the Maintenance Request form.

Conal Carr, director of housing operations and facilities planning at Penn State, said via email the university has “cleaned and sanitized the impacted rooms, proactively checked all of the rooms in multiple buildings and emailed all the residents in North [Halls], asking them to report any issues to the area housing office.”

“Since humidity levels have finally dropped, we should have no or very few issues moving forward,” Carr said.

However, Ratthe said she and her roommate believe these actions are not enough from the university.

“I just want [Penn State] to quickly figure out a solution,” Ratthe said. “I feel like [the university is] taking [its] sweet time — so as not to get into a lot of trouble, but a lot of people have been affected.”

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