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Virginia Commonwealth University closes dorm due to ‘elevated mold levels’

More than 400 students have been told to leave the residence hall

Officials at Virginia Commonwealth University moved to close Johnson Hall, shown in this undated photograph from the school, after detecting elevated levels of mold. (Virginia Commonwealth University)
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More than 400 Virginia Commonwealth University students were told to move out of their residence hall, officials said, citing “elevated mold levels.”

The university closed Johnson Hall, which houses first-year students, last week and officials said the building will remain shuttered for the rest of the academic year. The decision followed complaints regarding humidity, moisture and mold — prompting school officials to inspect rooms, install dehumidifiers and hire a contractor to help perform air-quality tests in the aging dorm.

Testing revealed 41 out of 228 spaces throughout Johnson Hall had an “elevated spore count of mold when compared to the outside reference sample,” officials said. Temporarily shuttering the dorm will allow administrators to determine the source of the mold and treat it, Michael Porter, a campus spokesperson, said Tuesday in an email.

“This was a difficult decision,” said Michael Cimis, the school’s director of environmental health and safety, during a virtual information session hosted Nov. 24. “But I can tell you that it is a proactive decision really being made out of an abundance of caution.”

The university has offered to relocate the 414 affected residents to vacant housing on campus, as well as to off-campus options — including apartments and a hotel — in the Richmond area. Porter said Tuesday that 315 students have already moved into their new housing. The remaining students must leave by Friday. Seventy students opted to cancel their housing contracts for the rest of the fall, for the spring semester or for both.

Complaints of mold, moisture grow on George Washington U. campus

Exposure to mold can cause an assortment of health issues, or none at all, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some people are sensitive to mold and develop symptoms including stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes or skin. It can trigger more severe complications, such as difficulty breathing, in individuals with compromised immune systems.

Students in Johnson Hall and elsewhere on campus have reported respiratory symptoms to the campus health center, but “there is no way to clinically determine if these are related to mold versus other causes,” Porter said. “Johnson Hall was not overly represented among students reporting respiratory symptoms this fall.”

Still, officials moved to close the hall to be safe, Cimis said.

“Mold is everywhere. Fungal spores are present in almost every environment and it grows when conditions are right, and that generally involves moisture or humidity,” Cimis said. “But when it does grow uncontrolled, it can become a problem.”

The issue is a perennial one on many campuses. Officials at George Washington University deployed maintenance crews into residence halls earlier this fall following a spate of complaints from students who said they found mold growing in their rooms. At Howard University, the presence of mold was among several grievances that spurred a protest that lasted more than a month.

‘We won’: Howard protesters reach deal with university and end month-long occupation

In the wake of an adenovirus outbreak at the University of Maryland in College Park in 2018, students and parents pointed to a mold infestation that forced nearly 600 students to temporarily evacuate a residence hall. First-year student Olivia Paregol died of complications from adenovirus and, in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, her family claims the school and two former officials were responsible.

While mold does not cause adenovirus, it can set the stage for other health problems, particularly for those like Paregol with compromised immune systems.

The complications at VCU come in the final weeks of the semester and as students prepare for final exams. “We know that this is a difficult and disruptive experience for our student and their families,” said Charles Klink, senior vice provost of student affairs.