“Some of those [items] were really near and dear to me,” she said. The expensive regalia she wore when she graduated with her PhD was also destroyed by mold. “I consider my office to be a complete loss.”
Fifteen professors in U-Md.’s anthropology department have battled mold, and the health complications that come with it, for years, said department chair Paul Shackel. He started keeping a log of mold-related episodes in 2015.
“It affects teaching, it affects the morale of people, and people are kind of discouraged because this has been going on for a while,” Shackel said. “The university is taking steps, but the steps, I don’t think, are big enough.”
Complaints about mold in the academic building have a familiar ring: A year ago, nearly 600 students were displaced from their on-campus housing at U-Md. because of a mold outbreak — an outbreak that sparked criticism of the university’s administration.
Amid the mold infestation, dozens of students developed adenovirus infections, and an 18-year-old freshman died of complications from the virus. Mold does not cause adenovirus infections but can set the stage for other health problems. The director of the university health center, in emails to administrators last year, acknowledged that “mold can cause respiratory irritation that may increase susceptibility of any viral infection.”
Professors in the anthropology department say they regularly carry wipes to clean mold from the walls and furniture in their offices. Some try their best to avoid their offices, opting to work from home.
U-Md. in recent years has spent nearly $500,000 on efforts to control moisture in Woods Hall, including waterproofing, dehumidifiers, window sealing and a new drainage system, university spokeswoman Katie Lawson said in an email.
“We care deeply for the well-being of our community, and we are working closely with faculty members in Woods Hall on interim measures and permanent solutions to address moisture control,” Lawson said. “We are currently finalizing a plan to relocate faculty offices.”
Facilities Management, the department that oversees campus infrastructure and repairs, said in a statement that it has installed rain guards and provided mold remediation services.
But the issues persist, faculty members say.
The anthropology department’s location in the basement of Woods Hall makes it prone to humidity. Mold thrives in damp conditions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jen Shaffer, an assistant professor in the anthropology department, said she tries to stay away from her office. She has offered to hold Skype meetings with students while she works at home.
“I feel bad because I prefer a face-to-face meeting,” Shaffer said. “I feel kind of nervous with students coming in and out of my office. I don’t know what their medical histories are, and it could be potentially dangerous.”
Sangaramoorthy also prefers to work at home. She said she reconfigured her teaching schedule this semester to limit her time on campus to two days a week.
She and other faculty have experienced health-related issues. Shackel developed skin rashes. For Shaffer, it’s her sinuses.
“I know when I walk into the building, I can start to feel my sinuses clog up,” Shaffer said. “Overall, my eyes get all gluey, and you just get this pressure building up in your head.”
Shackel, upon visiting a dermatologist three years ago, was prescribed a steroid cream. Only recently did he consider his issues could be attributed to the mold growing in his department.
Sangaramoorthy, who said she had never experienced allergies before coming to U-Md., watched as skin peeled from her fingers when she tried to clean the mold in her office. Her skin got so sensitive it would puff up when she touched it.
She went to an allergist who indicated the associate professor’s skin condition was the “cumulative effect of years of being exposed” to mold, Sangaramoorthy said.
Woods Hall is one of the older buildings on the College Park campus. It was built in 1948, according to the university’s website.
The academic building is scheduled to undergo renovations at some point between 2021 and 2030, according to the campus facilities master plan. The document doesn’t provide information on what those renovations will include.
In 2014, Facilities Management replaced drywall and caulked window sills with waterproof sealant to address moisture problems, according to a statement from the facilities department. Floor fans and dehumidifiers were installed and more insulation work was done in 2016 and 2017.
Facilities Management continues to monitor mold growth in the building.
In February, the student newspaper, the Diamondback, reported that U-Md. will renovate 16 dorms to prevent more outbreaks.
Meanwhile, professors in the basement of Woods Hall will do what they can to stay healthy this school year.
“I’m owed a very sort of safe workplace environment where I can actually feel comfortable coming to,” Sangaramoorthy said. She just returned from a year-long sabbatical. She said her symptoms disappeared while she was away.
“The minute I start having issues again, I’m gone.”