Days later, officials said in an email to students they had “observed high humidity and what appeared to be mold in two of the units” and evacuated students from all eight houses to be safe.
But some students on the Northwest Washington campus think the problem is more widespread. Students in at least four residence halls are also reporting what they suspect is mold. Some say it is making them sick.
“One of my friends got really sick with an eye and ear infection, and was throwing up,” said Stephen Shaw, a freshman living in Potomac House, a dorm built in 2006. Last week he sought medical help for a nagging ear infection and bouts of coughing that developed after he found what he thinks to be mold in a vent. He said a recent coronavirus test came back negative.
Shaw acknowledged beginning-of-the-year illnesses are common on residential campuses and it is hard to pinpoint the exact cause of his symptoms. “Whether it’s mass hysteria or black mold, I’m not positive about,” he said.
Officials are encouraging students who think they have found mold to submit maintenance requests to the school’s facilities team. Crystal Nosal, a spokesperson for the campus, said there is no evidence of a systemic issue and, with the exception of Townhouse Row, no buildings need extensive remediation.
“In most cases, no need for remediation was identified or only minor cleaning of dust or dirt was required. A few have resulted in some limited remediation efforts,” Nosal said. “Some are in the process of being further reviewed by the industrial hygienists, but no systemic issues have been identified to date.”
Nosal added officials will respond “promptly” to maintenance requests, but sophomore Isha Gupta said hers remains unfulfilled. Gupta said facilities staff cleaned a vent in her room, but did not investigate the black dots clustered on her ceiling in Shenkman Hall. She said she submitted a maintenance request last week.
“We’ve noticed it for the past week or two, but didn’t think much of it until the other students were moved out,” said Gupta, who is studying international affairs. “People are generally a little skeptical and nervous because we don’t know how big of an issue it is.”
GWU students in interviews expressed concern about the situation, fearing it will not be the coronavirus — but mold — that sends them home a second time. The university in the weeks leading up to the fall semester assured students that “all GW buildings are safe to occupy” and that efforts were underway to improve air quality and ventilation to mitigate potential transmission of the virus.
The possible presence of mold, an organism that thrives in environments with poor circulation, undermines those promises, students said.
Michael Kletz, an allergist and immunologist with practices in the District and Northern Virginia, said mold is “pretty much everywhere,” particularly during this time of year.
“It can cause havoc and a variety of symptoms,” ranging from a runny nose and itchy eyes to respiratory problems, Kletz said. “It can be fairly debilitating depending on how sensitive someone is to mold.”
After GWU shuttered at the onset of the pandemic, most of the university’s residence halls sat unoccupied for more than a year — which could contribute to environmental problems.
“I would think the absence from the school for the last year-and-a-half, places were kept darker, which promotes mold growth,” Kletz said. “At the college, once it gets into the house or the indoor structure, it’s sometimes hard to get rid of. It can get into the walls.”
GWU officials continue to investigate the situation in Townhouse Row and determine the scope of repairs. But for Helena Balch, a junior who lived in one of the evacuated homes, the issues started long before she was forced out.
Balch, now living temporarily in a hotel near campus, said she noticed water dripping from her ceiling and pooling on her desk when she arrived in August. By early September, 11 of the 17 women living in her rowhouse had sore throats, runny noses or mild coughing, yet tested negative for the coronavirus, Balch said.
“Potentially these respiratory symptoms were in relation to the poor air quality we were living in,” said Balch, who had a sore throat but has been feeling better since leaving the rowhouse. Balch said she did not find mold in the house but had a potential encounter over the summer while living in Shenkman Hall, a 17-year-old building with 10 floors.
The cellular and molecular biology major noticed a clump of black dots on her ceiling and submitted a facilities request. The request remained unopened until she moved out, she said. “The mold issue is not a new thing at GW,” she said.
Some students in interviews pointed to an incident in 2019, when faculty complained of mold, pests and sewage in the building that housed the psychology department. And, while not at GWU, the mold outbreak that displaced nearly 600 students at the University of Maryland in 2018 also looms in students’ memories.
The Maryland university came under fire that year after dozens of students were sickened by adenovirus, including freshman Olivia Paregol, who died of complications with the virus.
Cayton Underwood, a sophomore and journalism major, said she first detected what she thought was mold when she moved into The Dakota in August. It was growing in her microwave. She reported it to the facilities team.
Three weeks passed before facilities crews came to examine the issue, Underwood said. The university also sent a housekeeper to spot clean. But the problem lingered. “There was still mold there, very visible. You could see the spores,” said Underwood, adding she lives with roommates who have asthma and allergies — plus two emotional-support cats. She and her roommates were relocated to a different dorm last week.
Hannah Longbottom, a junior studying fine arts and emergency health services, said her room in 1959 E St. room could also have mold. She said she contacted the school’s facilities team and was told to stay out of her room as much as possible until they could send help. “I’m still living in my dorm, breathing in mold, which is great," she said.
Patience on the 27,000-student campus is wearing thin.
“We’re all pretty pissed here,” Longbottom said. “I’m paying so much money out of pocket. I pay for school myself. It’s just frustrating that I paid for a safe living space and this is what I’m getting.”