If you’ve been unfortunate enough to endure a flood caused by nature or human error, but fortunate enough that your home survived, it’s at the top of your list of worries: mold. It’s why you have to act immediately to haul out all the contents, rip out carpets and even walls: to prevent the insidious growth of fungi that will never go away on their own.
We’ve long abandoned the idea that colleges serve in loco parentis, but we still expect our children to be safe when we send them off to study there. And as The Post and Courier’s Uncovered team explains, mold growth has become a common occurrence in the dorms where tens of thousands of South Carolinians students live for up to four years of college.
That means parents and taxpayers are paying for conditions most of us wouldn’t tolerate in our own homes — conditions that can make life miserable in many cases, lead to illnesses in some and even in rare instances kill.
There’s something a little miserable about living in a dorm to begin with: a smaller space and having to get along with roommates. But those are things everybody knows about going in — conditions some even consider character builders. Living with mold is not.
Fortunately, mold seldom kills. But up to 10% of the population is allergic to mold, some strains of which can create poisonous byproducts and even carcinogens. Physicians and researchers say mold can create brain fog that makes college more of a struggle than it should be. It can create symptoms that mimic those from other illnesses. It can trigger asthma and allergies and weakened immune systems that can leave victims’ bodies more susceptible to the viruses that cause life-threatening illnesses
And while college officials say they’re working hard to address the problem, the team of reporters led by Tony Bartleme found plenty of instances in which officials seemed to be blaming students. At S.C. State, for instance, where a student with asthma who was living in a mold-infested dorm died suddenly this spring for reasons that still haven’t been identified, a spokesman responding to questions about Amya Carr’s death told reporters that “Every campus that has water, facilities and showers is going to encounter mold on occasion.”
Since Ms. Carr’s death, The Post and Courier and its reporting partners examined more than 3,700 pages of mold-related complaints and expense reports from the past two years from South Carolina’s 12 largest public residential colleges and universities. They documented at least 2,400 mold-related cases, created the first database of mold reports on S.C. college campuses and also developed a searchable national database. (And before you say that the mold is a typical government failure, note that 14 of 15 private colleges the newspaper contacted refused to even answer questions, so for all we know they have problems that are even worse.)
The personal experiences the Uncovered team gathered through dozens of interviews ranged from the banal to the hair-raising, from reports that turned out to be unfounded to the Francis Marion student who discovered mold growing in her bathroom, noticed her allergies worsen and then felt her throat closing up. She was rushed to the hospital, where she was told she was lucky she made it in time.
This is not a story of people refusing to do their jobs or deliberately endangering students. It’s not a story about a massive public health threat. It’s not about a problem with an obvious solution, unless your definition of an obvious solution is tearing down every old dorm in the state and building new ones, or hiring 10 times the maintenance staff those colleges now have to scour all the buildings on a weekly basis abating the mold before it has a chance to spread.
Instead, it’s about an insidious problem that is invisible to most people, temporarily debilitating to some and deadly to a few. It’s about a problem that doesn’t have a magic solution — but one that can be solved with greater attention and focus. As a special legislative study committee concluded in 2019 after studying mold in public buildings of all types (the report did not mention colleges): “A silver bullet to solve the problem of mold in public places does not exist, but it is an attention-deserving problem. The likely initial step is an education campaign because a good solution to the mold problem is preventing the development and spread of mold in the first place.”
Since it was a legislative report, that recommendation for an education campaign has gathered dust, if not mold, on a shelf somewhere. But we can’t think of a better first step toward addressing the college mold problem than raising public awareness, by making mold a topic of conversation from freshman orientation through graduation. And educating students and parents — especially but not exclusively when students have respiratory problems — about what to look out for and what to do when they see it. And making sure doctors and nurses at college health centers are especially attuned to the problem, so they’re more likely to consider mold a potential cause when students show up sick.
None of that requires much money. What it does require, though, is something that institutions large and small, public and private, are too often hesitant to do: openly acknowledging problems and being transparent about everything they’re doing to remedy them.