The Daily Gamecock

MOLD U: Toxic mold is making college miserable for thousands in SC, across the nation

South Carolina college students faced at least 2,400 possible cases of mold in their dorms during the past two years, a crush of complaints and repairs that highlight a growing local and national problem: college living spaces that make students sick.

In complaint after complaint, students said moldy dorms triggered asthma attacks and allergies, a new Post and Courier-led Uncovered investigation found.

Students said they found mold on their desks, mattresses, couches and even their hats. They watched mushrooms sprout from baseboards and over their heads. They opened air vents and discovered filters and grates caked with black fungi.

“It’s getting into clothes and hangers. The place is awful now,” a student in Clemson University’s Lightsey Bridge complex told school officials in October 2021.

“Everyone in my room is experiencing symptoms of black mold,” a student at Coastal Carolina University’s Ingle Hall reported in September 2021.

“Black mold is actively growing, covering the ceiling, the window, and now the bed frames,” a student in Winthrop University’s Richardson Hall told the school in August 2020.

The stakes are high — for students who live with mold and universities responsible for providing safe housing. Many mold strains generate toxins that trigger myriad health problems, from asthma and allergies to brain fog. Symptoms of mold exposure often mimic those from other illnesses, creating medical mysteries.

One mystery lingers over South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. Amya Carr, 21, was a senior this spring, majoring in communications and co-captain of the Champagne Dancers, the university’s dance troupe. Athletic and trim, she also struggled with asthma. And it seemed to get worse when she was in her dorm, her mother told The Post and Courier earlier this year.

Her dorm complex had a history of mold complaints — 32 during the past two years, records show. They included seemingly minor reports about mold in showers. Others suggested mold was more widespread. Students said they found mold on couches and chairs, around air ducts and on a mattress.

In April, Carr had trouble breathing. Classmates rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late. She died there, her lungs full of fluid, a campus police report said. Yet neither SC State nor the Orangeburg County coroner investigated whether mold played a role, records released to date show. Sam Watson, the university’s spokesman, said the school could not discuss Carr's death, but he noted that no one from Carr's suite had lodged any complaints about mold.

“Every campus that has water, facilities and showers is going to encounter mold on occasion,” he said.

After Carr’s death, The Post and Courier obtained more than 3,700 pages of mold-related complaints and expenses over the past two years from South Carolina’s public residential colleges and universities.

The newspaper teamed up with its Uncovered partners, a collaboration of local newspapers across South Carolina that explores questionable government conduct. Since college newspapers often document mold outbreaks first, the Uncovered team also worked with Daily Gamecock journalists at the University of South Carolina and a journalist with The Tiger at Clemson University. Reporters analyzed work orders to identify problem dorms and interviewed students, administrators and health experts.

The result is the most comprehensive look to date at mold in college dorms across South Carolina — and how incidents here mirror problems nationwide. Among the findings:

The University of South Carolina has no system in place to efficiently track mold-related complaints.

When the Uncovered collaboration asked USC for public records about mold, the school responded with a $12,500 invoice to produce these documents. Other large schools, including the College of Charleston and Clemson, responded quickly and provided information for free. Pressed, officials at USC eventually reduced the bill to $1,800. But the reduction came with an admission: They had to go through work orders one by one to identify complaints that specifically mentioned mold.

This inefficient system makes it more difficult for the state's largest higher education institution to pinpoint mold-prone dorms. 

Elected leaders and school officials have kicked the maintenance can down the road for decades.

Colleges and universities nationwide face an estimated $112 billion maintenance and repair backlog, a massive deferral of work that contributed to mold outbreaks. In South Carolina, that backlog is at least $661 million, a figure that officials acknowledge is outdated and vastly understates the true gap.

South Carolina isn’t the only state that has moldy dorms. 

From the Dakotas to Florida, students at more than 135 U.S. colleges also had newsworthy mold problems in recent years, a new searchable Post and Courier database shows. Last year, students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., were so fed up they camped outside their dorms in tents.

Frustration over mold led to expensive lawsuits, here and across the nation.

Examples: Parents of a University of Maryland student sued after their daughter died in a mold-ridden dorm. Students at the University of Indiana filed a lawsuit that spawned renovations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements to students. In South Carolina, a group of students at Morris College in Sumter filed a $55 million class action lawsuit alleging that dorms there made them sick.

School officials here downplayed students’ concerns.

Housing officials interviewed for this story said their maintenance crews do the best they can to beat back mold outbreaks. They spoke about tough budgets and the challenges of managing aging buildings for thousands of students. But they also said many mold cases were the product of students’ own slovenly habits. Or students mistook mold for dust. Or they had preexisting allergies that fired up when they moved to a new place. And they said students and parents often overreact, especially when students post complaints on social media.

Yet documents provided by universities, along with interviews with dozens of students, show the problem is anything but minimal. What’s more, pinning blame on students shifts attention away from causes beyond their control, such as the mold crawling inside walls at College of Charleston’s McAlister Hall.

Or what happened in Chipley Hall at Lander University in Greenwood, where inspectors looked inside vents and ductwork and found mold that affected 46 rooms.

Or an outbreak of mold at South Tower at USC in August — before students moved in.

More clear is that mold is making many students miserable. Consider what happened to Kayra Rice at Francis Marion University in Florence.

During her sophomore year in 2020, Rice noticed mold growing in the bathroom she shared with her roommates.

“We tried to get rid of the mold, doing research, cleaning, leaving the door open to reduce the moisture,” she recalled. “But it kept coming back.”

Even before college, Rice knew she was sensitive to mold based on earlier tests by her allergist. At Francis Marion, her allergies grew worse by the week. Then one day she felt her throat closing up.

Paramedics rushed her to the hospital. A doctor told her mold likely triggered a severe reaction. She was lucky she made it there in time.

“He told me, ‘You can’t stay where you’re staying. You have to move,’ ” she said. Mold exposure “affected me a lot.”

So much so that she transferred to the University of South Carolina.

Which may be the poster child of the state’s mold problems.

All told, USC had at least 840 mold-related cases during the past two years, a review of more than 1,400 work orders shows.

Kendall Guthrie was one of them. She’s a fourth-year public health student who took a crash course in the effects of mold after winter break. That’s when she found black mold throughout her room in Capstone, an 18-story dorm built in the late-1960s that houses 610 students.

“There was mold all over my pillows, mold all over my wall, mold all over my bed,” Guthrie told The Daily Gamecock for this report.

At first, Guthrie tried to clean the mold herself with spray she bought from a store — not realizing that the spores could spread. A day after, Guthrie said she felt even worse. She said she called FIXX, the university’s maintenance system, over and over.

“I couldn’t sleep in my room because, again, you stir up all the stuff so you literally can’t breathe in it, so my roommate and I didn’t sleep in my room that night,” Guthrie said.

Not only was her room covered in mold, but black mold blotches blossomed on the ceiling in the hallway. And then, so did a mushroom, she said.

Guthrie’s and Rice’s experiences weren’t outliers, the Uncovered collaboration found.

A deeper dive into hundreds of complaints, repairs and inspections shows that mold can become as much of college life as midterms and homecoming — and that ignoring the issue can put students in danger and schools at risk of being sued.

‘Silent Killer’

A bit of background helps. Mold is a catchall term for many strains of fungi. Mildew is a term often used to describe mold that grows on hard surfaces, such as shower stalls and windowsills. Cladosporium is a common brown and black mold strain found inside and outside the home. Other blackish strains include aspergillus and stachybotrys. Penicillium has a blue-green tint and an uncanny ability to knock out bacteria, which is why we use it to make penicillin.

No matter their tint, most strains grow best in dark and damp areas like their fungal cousins, mushrooms and yeasts. Scientists have known for centuries that many mold strains can make people miserable.

In 1698, an English physician named Sir John Floyer reported for the first time in Western literature how an asthmatic patient “fell into a violent fit, by going into a wine cellar where the must was fermenting.” In the 1870s, another English physician showed that inhaling penicillium molds in hay could trigger breathing problems.

More recently, researchers have estimated that between 3 to 10 percent of the general population is allergic to mold. Molds also generate poisonous byproducts called mycotoxins. Aspergillus, a common strain found on the coast, can produce a mycotoxin called aflatoxin, a known carcinogen.

“Some people are allergic to it, and some are poisoned by it,” said William Weirs, a doctor with the Center for Occupational and Environmental Medicine in North Charleston.

Weirs said he believes it’s the mycotoxins that create the brain fog and weakened immune systems his office has seen in hundreds of patients over the years.

He recalled the case of a student from the Charleston area who had a full athletic scholarship to a college in Virginia. She grew sicker and sicker. Her parents began to suspect mold.

“They basically badgered the school into drilling a hole through the wall and going in with a camera,” he said.

They found the inside covered with stachybotrys inches from where she slept.

“She was breathing in trace amounts of what amounted to a chemical weapons agent.”

The school moved her to another room, and she soon recovered, he said.

“It’s a silent killer,” said Anindya Chanda, a former University of South Carolina researcher who now heads a startup focusing on toxic mold chemistry.

Mold affects people in many different ways, he said. One person might not feel a thing, but the person's roommate might end up wheezing and coughing.

“The bad part is that you don’t have any prominent symptoms like you have with COVID,” he said. “When you get exposed to mold, it weakens your immune system. It tries to colonize your body, and your body fights it off. And then you get infected with other things.”

In plain sight

To better understand mold’s impact on South Carolina college students, the Uncovered collaboration sought complaints, tests and work orders from 12 of the state’s largest public universities. These documents are available to the public under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The collaboration also asked for similar documents and statistics from 15 private universities. Except for Furman University, those requests were ignored or declined.

But the publicly available data was revealing.

Over the past two years, universities logged at least 2,400 mold-related cases, with USC’s 840 leading the pack. Despite that large number, one USC housing official said she was surprised: She thought the number would be higher.

The College of Charleston had the second most with 422 complaints, followed by Clemson with 321 complaints and mold-related inspections. North of Columbia, Winthrop in Rock Hill had more than 270 cases. And back closer to the coast, Coastal Carolina in Conway had 229 cases and Francis Marion 184

Some cases in these tallies turned out to be something other than mold, such as dust or stains. At the same time, some inspections that originally found nothing later turned into significant mold outbreaks. Consider what happened at Lander University, a college of 3,800 students in Greenwood.

In October 2021, the university’s consultant inspected three rooms in Chipley Hall and found a small amount of mold in a unit’s shared bathroom. It recommended “routine housekeeping.” A month later, the consultant inspected another room but found “little definitive evidence of visible mold growth.” Weeks passed.

In December, the consultant inspected the entire dorm when a university employee grew concerned that the building hadn't aired out properly after carpets had been steam cleaned. This time they found a horror show.

Photos from the inspections show blackish mold hiding in air vents, fuzzy white fungi crawling on bed frames and under mattresses, and dark blotches spreading on the back of a mirror. In all, 46 rooms were affected, records show. The school told The (Greenwood) Index-Journal, an Uncovered partner, that the mold has since been cleaned up. 

‘Kept coming back’

For students, mold outbreaks add an unnecessary layer of stress that can disrupt their studies, or worse.

At USC, Mary Blaschke found mold covering her bathroom when she moved into Capstone House as a freshman in August 2020.

“The bathroom was just black,” Blaschke told The Daily Gamecock for this report.

Blaschke said she bleached the bathtub and the shower over and over. The mold kept coming back. It spread to the ceiling tiles in the hallway outside of her door. Mushrooms began to grow. Blaschke and her roommate used their suite-mates’ door to avoid walking under the fungi.

Blaschke and other people on her floor soon felt ill, symptoms that they thought were related to mold, including fatigue and coughing fits.

“Every time I would come home for the weekend, I would feel magically better,” Blaschke said. “Then the second I go back, I would feel magically worse.”

At Clemson, Bennett Brooks, a sophomore in the duplex-style Thornhill Village residences, said he felt lethargic and had a runny nose for months.

“I thought it was allergies until I went to the doctor, and he said it was from mold,” he told The (Clemson) Tiger for this report. “I cleaned out all the vents and got a dehumidifier, and it went away in like three days.”

At the College of Charleston, the school deployed more than 250 dehumidifiers across campus in 2018, an internal email showed. There were so many that the facilities department couldn’t empty them alone. That left students and faculty tending to them, sometimes two or three times a day.

Max Milliken was one such student.

During his freshman year in 2019, Milliken was excited to land a room in College Lodge, a dorm along bustling Calhoun Street. It’s a converted motel with a retro feel and a dramatic exterior mural by Shepard Fairey.

But Milliken's room was so humid that the dehumidifier filled every five or six hours. He and his roommate couldn’t empty them fast enough because of their work and school schedules. If they lapsed, even for a short time, condensation formed on the walls, he said. Sometimes their posters slipped onto the floor. Then Hurricane Dorian swiped Charleston, causing water damage to the building and a severe mold outbreak.

His roommate was especially sensitive to mold. “He was sick, sneezing, coughing, face was white and clammy.”

The university moved them to Craig Hall, which also has a history of mold. His roommate got sick again.

“And by the way, all of this was going on during the first round of midterms of my freshman year.”

Fed up, he sought a meeting with Andrew Hsu, the college’s president, who “listened intently.” When they were done, a staffer handed Milliken a commemorative coin and had him pose for a photo with Hsu. “I tried to smile, but you can see my hair was messed up, I was pale and hadn’t slept for a while.”

Milliken said the university eventually moved them to a temporary room in McAlister Hall. But that dorm has long been a petri dish.

Built in 2002, McAlister soon developed chronic moisture problems. As early as 2006, the school’s facilities director called its air conditioning system “a wreck.” Its issues were so bad the university is now renovating it to the tune of $32 million. The college also is suing the building’s contractors and developers, alleging design and construction flaws. The lawsuit’s targets are punching back with allegations that the college failed to properly maintain the dorm.

Lawsuit or not, the school has received a chorus of mold complaints about McAlister — 108 since 2020, records show.

Milliken and his roommate moved back to his parents’ house on James Island. He eventually graduated early, but his roommate left school altogether amid the chaos.

“The mold really impacted everyone’s academics,” Milliken said. “And the way housing handled it was abhorrent.”

‘Lurch toward crisis’

Amid this backdrop, officials in charge of residence halls have their own headaches — a massive maintenance backlog that an industry journal recently described as “a slow lurch toward crisis.”

In South Carolina and across the nation, many campus buildings were built during two waves.

The first was in the 1960s and 1970s, when Baby Boomers enrolled in record numbers. Hastily built, many structures were “often subpar in terms of craftsmanship,” a recent report by Gordian and APPA, two education industry groups.

The second wave was during the 2000s when the Baby Boomers’ children came of age. Universities sought mega donors for shiny new libraries, dorms and student centers — the kinds of amenities that lure top students and boost rankings. This boom continued through the Great Recession, when state lawmakers axed funding for higher education institutions.

Today, schools have an estimated $112 billion repair and maintenance backlog, the Gordian and APPA study found. You can see this backlog in work orders at South Carolina universities: air conditioning systems that weren’t working properly, dirty vents and filters, and broken bathroom exhaust fans; all can lead to moisture problems — and mold.

The sheer size of some campuses, especially those with historic structures, adds extra layers of complexity. For example, all told, the College of Charleston manages 3.8 million square feet of building space on its campus, as much as the new World Trade Center in New York. Its oldest structure dates back to 1778.

Mold or not, maintaining old buildings and so much space "is a difficult situation that we have to deal with," said Cliff Hamilton, director of facilities management.

And aging buildings are especially prone to mold outbreaks. For instance, an Uncovered analysis of USC’s work orders showed that three older dorms — Capstone, Columbia Hall and South Tower — had by far the most mold complaints. All three were built during that first construction wave in the 1960s.

When presented with those findings, Kirsten Kennedy, USC associate vice president for student housing and sustainability, said: “Those are the un-renovated buildings. There’s definitely a relationship there.”

She and other university officials also acknowledged that their computer systems don’t readily track mold complaints. Despite that challenge, Kennedy said “we kind of know” which buildings had the most mold problems based on work orders and staff experience. “Yeah, we should be able to push a button (to pinpoint mold patterns), but right now we can’t.”

No matter how old the building, crews do their best to beat back mold, said Rod Howell, USC’s director of facility operations, echoing his peers at other schools. "We've got a big campus and 7,000 rooms, so we've got a lot" of work. He said crews deploy with bags full of gear, including meters that measure moisture in the air, and a thermal imaging camera that can detect moisture hidden behind wall.

Mold “is very serious because we don’t want our students living anywhere it could be hazardous to their health,” he said.

Mold is “a real concern that families and students have,” added Stephen Harrison, vice president of auxiliary enterprises at Coastal Carolina. “What I hope desperately is that a reader will understand that none of these colleges and universities are going to be like, ‘Oh, we don't care.’ The opposite is true. All of us want students to be safe and successful while they’re here.”

Blaming students

Yet while many housing officials spoke about their diligence in handling mold complaints, they also talked at length about how students and parents were a big part of the problem. They said social media ginned up people’s interest in mold, prompting what they thought were overreactions.

Said Harrison of Coastal Carolina: “When it wasn’t Tik Tok, it was a parent Facebook group, and you know, if someone did a strict analysis of that parent Facebook group, they’d find it was really two parents who brought the issue up frequently.” He said that when he talks with other university housing leaders around the country, they describe concerns about mold as “this kind of moment in society.”

At Clemson, the school’s Lightsey Bridge complex had 69 mold reports during a roughly two-year period, the most of any of the school’s dorms. A trio of university housing officials said in a statement that a “contributing factor” was a resident who bought a do-it-yourself mold test and posted its petri dish of growth on social media. This generated a number of false mold reports, they said, adding that they consider mold kits to be unreliable.

Officials at other schools said some students get overly anxious about a bit of mold on a shower, a normal occurrence in a bathroom, and especially in sweatbox states in the South. Or they may have pre-existing allergies that get worse because they’ve moved to a new environment.

“You hear a lot that, ‘I went home over winter break and the problems went away, so it’s related to my dorm,’ ” said John Morris, vice president of facilities management at the College of Charleston. “But we also know the outdoor environment in Charleston is pretty high in mold counts that are just natural to the area.”

Echoing other officials, Morris said most mold-related outbreaks could be traced to the students themselves. “If you don’t do some basic housekeeping, you will get mold.”

Sunlight disinfects

Talk to college housing officials and you'll hear a hint of weariness in their voices. In interviews, they spoke about the complexity of the issue: how mold might affect one person but not another, how mold is present everywhere, how a majority of complaints are either minor issues or not mold at all.

But their comments come in stark contrast to the hundreds of often desperate mold reports from students. Anindya Chanda, the mold expert and former USC professor, saw this disconnect between students and universities play out as a faculty member.

In 2015 at USC, he created a course about mold, and seven students signed up. Four years later, the course drew 80 students, he said. "There was a lot of interest." Interest from students and housing officials — and even state government.

For a time, he worked closely with USC housing department staff on mold problems. An internal USC publication previously dubbed him the "mold detective." He was a member of a legislative panel that in 2019 recommended a statewide education campaign about mold. At the same time, he was aware of how sensitive university officials were about mold.

“They didn’t want any comments that might lead to some legal issues and all of that,” he said.

He's since moved to North Carolina, where his company works on mold issues with universities in other states.

Some institutions downplay mold. “Unfortunately, they know they have a problem. But this problem can be managed well if detected early. It's better to be transparent and say how the (mold) was detected and how this being managed. It’s not the right approach to hide a mold problem."

As for students, interviews for this report often revealed mixed feelings: affection for the schools they attended, their professors and friend groups — and betrayal that their mold-ridden dorms took some of that experience from them.

For Max Milliken, the College of Charleston student who played musical dorms during his freshman year, the college's mold problems left him simultaneously outraged and numbed.

“Mold is such a common occurrence here that we don’t take pictures of it. We’re just so used to walking in the dorms and seeing it,” he said.

For Kayra Rice, her move to USC from her mold-ridden dorm at Francis Marion turned out to be one of the best things that happened to her.

She landed in USC’s Thornhill dorm, a residence hall that has had just a few mold complaints. She’s had no allergic reactions. “My life is so much better now.”

But she worries about her roommates at her first college, the ones who had to stay in the dorm that made her feel so ill, the ones left behind.

About this report

Nicole Ziege, Zharia Jeffies, Nathaniel Cary, Avery Wilks and Glenn Smith of The Post and Courier reported for this Uncovered project.

Uncovered’s goal is to put a spotlight on government conduct while supporting community news organizations amid a growing landscape of news deserts in rural areas. College newspapers also have been hard hit, but The Daily Gamecock continues to have a robust presence. Kailey Cota, the student editor in chief, coordinated that newspaper’s reporting for this project. At least 20 student journalists participated, including Kate Robins and Stephen Pastis. Their work included contacting more than 100 students, interviewing 15 who had notable mold stories and testing several dorms for mold. Daily Gamecock reporters also helped The Post and Courier analyze 1,400 work orders and build a database that identified problem dorms, a database the university itself lacked. The (Clemson) Tiger, led by David Ferrera, also contributed, as well as reporters from two Uncovered partners: Lindsey Hodges of The (Greenwood) Index-Journal and Bruce Mills of The Sumter Item.


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