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 saw mushrooms grow from their baseboards and above their heads. They discovered that filters and grates were caked in black mold. 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. Molds can cause a variety of health issues, including allergies and asthma. 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 years old, was a senior in spring. She majored in communications and was co-captain for the Champagne Dancers, the university’s dance troupe. She was athletic and trim but also suffered from asthma. Her mother said that her asthma got worse while she was in her dorm. Records show that 32 mold complaints were filed at her dorm. These reports included minor concerns about mold in showers. Others believed mold was more widespread. Carr developed difficulty breathing in April 2010. Carr had trouble breathing and classmates rushed her to the hospital but it was too late. According to a report by campus police, she died from fluid in her lungs. According to records, neither SC State nor Orangeburg County had investigated the possibility that mold was involved. Sam Watson, the university’s spokesperson, stated that the school cannot discuss Carr’s passing, but that he pointed out that no one from Carr’s suite had filed any mold complaints.
Mya Carr, 21 years old, died of an apparent asthma attack in her South Carolina State University dorm. Provided
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. The Uncovered team worked alongside Daily Gamecock journalists from the University of South Carolina as well as a journalist from The Tiger at Clemson University. College newspapers are known for reporting on mold outbreaks first. The report includes the analysis of work orders and interviews with students, administrators, and health professionals. Among the findings:
The University of South Carolina has no system in place to efficiently track mold-related complaints.
This inefficient system makes identifying mold-prone dorms more difficult for the state’s largest higher education institution.
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. According to a new database from Post and Courier, South Carolina has a $661 million backlog. This is a huge deferral of work that contributed to mold outbreaks. 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. The University of Indiana students filed a lawsuit which resulted in renovations and reimbursements of hundreds of thousands of dollars 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 discussed the difficulties of managing thousands of students in aging buildings and their tight budgets. They also mentioned that many mold cases were due to students’ poor habits. Students mistakenly thought mold was dust. They may have had allergies before moving to a new location. And they said students and parents often overreact, especially when students post complaints on social media.
Graphic: Does your college have mold?
Each represents newsworthy mold reports at colleges and universities since 2018. To read more, click on the
link. You can also click on the
to read more. It is clear that mold is making students miserable. Kayra Rice from Francis Marion University in Florence was affected by mold in her bathroom during her sophomore year.
Over the next week, her allergies got worse. One day, Rice felt her throat close up. Xavier Martin/The Daily Gamecock
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. Rice said, “But it kept coming back.”
All told, USC had at least 840 mold-related reports during the past two years, a review of more than 1,400 work orders shows.
A student on the campus of The University of South Carolina away from Capstone House on Oct. 18, 2022. John A. Carlos II/ Special to The Post and Courier
Kendall Gthrie was also one of them. After winter break, she took a crash course on mold effects. She is a fourth year public health student. 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.
Look carefully, and you will see a mushroom growing from the ceiling in a hallway in Capstone, January 2021. Kendall Guthrie, fourth-year public health student, found the mold after returning from winter break. Photo provided by Kendall Guthrie.
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.
Inspectors hired by Lander University found mold under bedding in Chipley Hall. Provided.
A bit of background helps. Mold can be used to refer to many types of fungi. Mildew is often used to refer to mold that grows on hard surfaces such as windowsills or shower stalls. Cladosporium, a brown-colored and black mold found both inside and outside of the home, is also known as Cladosporium. Aspergillus, stachybotrys and other blackish strains are also available. Penicillium has a blue-green tint and an uncanny ability to knock out bacteria, which is why we use it to make penicillin.
More recently, researchers have estimated that between 3 to 10 percent of the general population is allergic to mold. Mycotoxins are also produced by molds. 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. Her condition worsened. Her parents began to suspect mold.
“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.
“The bad part is that you don’t have any prominent symptoms like you have with COVID,” he said. Mold can weaken your immune system. The mold tries to colonize you, and your body fights back. And then you get infected with other things.”
Lander University found mold in at least 46 rooms during an inspection of Chipley Hall in late 2021. Inspectors discovered mold in at least 46 rooms during an inspection of Chipley Hall in late 2021. This photo was included in one of the inspection reports obtained by The Post and Courier.
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. The state’s Freedom of Information Act makes these documents available to the public.
The Uncovered collaboration also requested similar documents and statistics from 15 other 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 reports leading the pack. One USC housing official stated that she was shocked by the large number of mold-related cases. USC had 422 complaints while College of Charleston had 321 and Clemson had 321 complaints. Winthrop, Rock Hill, had more than 220 reports north of
. Coastal Carolina in Conway had 229 and Francis Marion 184 cases, respectively.
Some of these cases turned out to have mold-related issues, like dust or stains. Some mold outbreaks were also discovered after initial inspections found nothing. The university consultant visited Chipley Hall in October 2021 and discovered a tiny amount of mold in one of the shared bathrooms. The consultant recommended “routine housekeeping”. A month later, he inspected another room and found “little definitive evidence” of mold growth.
In December, a university employee became concerned that the dorm hadn’t been properly aired after the carpets had been steam cleaned. They discovered a horrifying display.
Photos of the inspections showed blackish mold in the air vents and fuzzy white fungi crawling under the mattresses. In all, 46 rooms were affected, records show. According to records, 46 rooms were affected by mold. The school informed The (Greenwood] Index-Journal (an Uncovered partner) that the mold was removed.
Inspectors discovered mold in a utility room at Clemson University’s Lightsey Bridge II student residence hall complex. Clemson/Provided
‘Kept coming back’
For students, mold outbreaks add an unnecessary layer of stress that can disrupt their studies, or worse.
Blaschke said she bleached the bathtub and the shower over and over. The mold continued to return. It reached the ceiling tiles outside her door. Blaschke and her roommate started to grow mushrooms. 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. Blaschke said that he would feel “magically better” the next time he returned to Clemson.
Bennett Brooks, a sophomore at Thornhill Village, stated that he had felt lethargic for several months and was convinced it was allergies.
He told The (Clemson Tiger) Tiger about the report. “I cleared out all the vents, got a dehumidifier and it disappeared in three days,” he said.
College of Charleston had more than 250 dehumidifiers on campus in 2018. The facilities department couldn’t empty them all, so there were many. That left students and faculty tending to them, sometimes two or three times a day.columbiaMax 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. The converted motel has a retro look and an exterior mural by Shepard Fairey. However, Milliken’s humid room required a dehumidifier to be used every five to six hours. Because of his work schedules and school schedules, Milliken and his roommate couldn’t empty the rooms fast enough. He said that if they left them unattended for even a few minutes, condensation would form on the walls. Sometimes, their posters fell onto the floor. His roommate, Hurricane Dorian, struck Charleston and caused severe water damage. His roommate got sick again.
The university moved them from their home to Craig Hall. Craig Hall also has a history with mold. He fell ill again, as did his roommate.
“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. McAlister’s dorm was a long-standing petri dish.
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. Milliken stated that mold had a negative impact on academic performance for everyone. “And the way housing handled it was abhorrent.”
Construction crews work on the College of Charleston’s McAlister Hall, one of its largest dorms Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. The dorm was built just 20 years ago and has suffered from chronic moisture problems for many years. Students reported over 100 mold-related problems in the dorms during the last two years. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff
Grace Beahm Alford email@example.com
‘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.”
SOURCE: UNIVERSITY DOCUMENTS FROM FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUESTS
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. According to a report from Gordian and APPA (two education industry groups), many structures were built cheaply, with poor craftsmanship. The second wave occurred in the 2000s, when the children of the Baby Boomers reached adulthood. Universities were looking for mega donors to build new dorms, student centers, and libraries. These amenities are what attract top students and increase their 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. This backlog can be seen in South Carolina universities’ work orders: air conditioning systems that aren’t functioning properly, dirty filters and bathroom exhaust fans. All of these can lead to mold and moisture problems. The College of Charleston has 3.8 million square feet of built space, which is twice the size of the New York World Trade Center. The oldest structure on the College of Charleston dates back to 1778.
Hall is located on the University of South Carolina campus. John A. Carlos I/Special To The Post and Courier
Mold or no, maintaining old buildings and large areas is a challenge that must be dealt with, said Cliff Hamilton, director for environmental health and safety.
And older buildings are more susceptible to mold outbreaks. An Uncovered analysis of USC work orders revealed that three of the older dorms, Capstone,
Hall, and South Tower, had the highest number of mold complaints. There is definitely a relationship there. There is definitely a relationship.
She also admitted that mold complaints are not easily tracked by university computer systems. Kennedy acknowledged that their computer systems don’t readily track mold complaints. “Yeah. We should be able push a button [to pinpoint mold patterns], but right now, we can’t,” Rod Howell, USC director of facility operations, stated. He is echoing the sentiments of his colleagues at other schools.
We have a large campus with 7,000 rooms so there is a lot of work. He stated that crews are equipped with a lot of equipment, including meters to measure moisture and thermal imaging cameras that can detect moisture behind walls.
Mold is “a serious concern for students and their families,” Stephen Harrison, vice-president of auxiliary enterprises at Coastal Carolina. “What I want desperately is for the reader to understand that none these colleges or universities will be like “Oh, they don’t care.” We all want our students to have a safe and successful experience while they are here.
Mold found behind a Capstone House bed during spring 2022. Leah Camilli, second-year criminal justice student, was sick throughout her freshman year. She only discovered the square foot mold behind her bed when she moved out. Photo: Courtesy of Leah Camili via The Daily Gamecock.
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. Three university housing officials stated that the “contributing factor” was that a resident bought a mold test kit and shared its results on social media. This generated a number of false mold reports, they said, adding that they consider mold kits to be unreliable.
Lightsey Bridge II in Clemson. Caitlin Herrington/Staff
Echoing other officials, Morris said most mold-related outbreaks could be traced to the students themselves. “If you don’t do basic housekeeping, mold will grow.”
Black mold was found on the ceiling in a Capstone House hallway in January 2021. Since August 2020, more than 130 mold-related maintenance requests for Capstone rooms have been received. Photo: Courtesy of Kendall Guthrie via The Daily Gamecock.
Talk to college housing officials and you’ll hear a hint of weariness in their voices. Interviews with them revealed the complexity of the problem: how mold can affect different people, how it is found everywhere, and how to prevent future problems.
For students, interviews for this report revealed mixed feelings. Max Milliken, a College of Charleston student, was outraged by mold problems at the college. We don’t even take photos of mold here. He said that he was so used to seeing mold in the dorms that he doesn’t take pictures.
Kayra Rice’s move from Francis Marion’s mold-ridden dorm at Francis Marion to USC turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to her.columbiaShe settled in Thornhill dorm at USC, which has only had a few mold complaints. “My life is so much better now.” “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
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. The Daily Gamecock, a college newspaper, has been impacted as well.
10 was the student editor-in-chief who coordinated this newspaper’s reporting on this project. Minimum 20 student journalists were involved, including
. They interviewed more than 100 students and tested several dorms for mold. Daily Gamecock reporters also assisted The Post and Courier in analyzing 1,400 work orders and building a database that identified problem dormitories, which was something the university had not yet created.
10 of the (Greenwood) Index-Journal, and
10 from The Sumter Item.