South Carolina college students faced at least 2,400 possible cases of mold in their dorms during the past two years, living spaces that make students sick.
In complaint after complaint, students said moldy dorms triggered asthma attacks and allergies, a Post and Courier-led Uncovered investigation found.
Students said they found mold on their desks, mattresses, couches and even their hats. They watched mushrooms sprout from baseboards and over their heads. They opened air vents and discovered filters and grates caked with black fungi.
“It’s getting into clothes and hangers. 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.
Many mold strains generate toxins that trigger a myriad health problems, from asthma and allergies to brain fog. Symptoms of mold exposure often mimic those from other illnesses.
One mystery lingers over South Carolina State University in Orangeburg.
Amya Carr, 21, was a senior this spring, majoring in communications and co-captain of the Champagne Dancers, the university’s dance troupe. Athletic and trim, she struggled with asthma. And it seemed to get worse when she was in her dorm, her mother told The Post and Courier earlier this year.
Her dorm complex had a history of mold complaints — 32 during the past two years, records show. They range from mold in showers to mold on couches and chairs, around air ducts and on a mattress.
In April, Carr had trouble breathing. Classmates rushed her to the hospital, but it was too late. She died there, her lungs full of fluid, a campus police report said.
Neither SC State nor the Orangeburg County coroner investigated whether mold played a role, records released to date show.
University spokesman Sam Watson said the school could not discuss Carr’s death, but he said no one from Carr’s suite had lodged any complaints about mold.
“Every campus that has water, facilities and showers is going to encounter mold on occasion,” he said.
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. Since college newspapers often document mold outbreaks first, the Uncovered team also worked with Daily Gamecock journalists at the University of South Carolina and a journalist with The Tiger at Clemson University. Reporters analyzed work orders to identify problem dorms and interviewed students, administrators and health experts.
The result is the most comprehensive look to date at mold in college dorms across South Carolina — and how incidents here mirror problems nationwide. Among the findings:
- The University of South Carolina has no system in place to efficiently track mold-related complaints.
When the Uncovered collaboration asked USC for public records about mold, the school responded with a $12,500 invoice to produce these documents. Other large schools, including the College of Charleston and Clemson, responded quickly and provided information for free. Pressed, officials at USC eventually reduced the bill to $1,800. But the reduction came with an admission: They had to go through work orders one by one to identify complaints that specifically mentioned mold.
This inefficient system makes it more difficult for the state’s largest higher education institution to pinpoint mold-prone dorms.
- Elected leaders and school officials have kicked the maintenance can down the road for decades.
In South Carolina, that backlog for maintenance and repair is at least $661 million, a figure that officials acknowledge is outdated and vastly understates the true gap.
- Frustration over mold led to expensive lawsuits, here and across the nation.
Parents of a University of Maryland student sued after their daughter died in a mold-ridden dorm. Students at the University of Indiana filed a lawsuit that spawned renovations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in reimbursements to students.
In South Carolina, 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 said maintenance crews do the best they can to beat back mold outbreaks. They spoke about tough budgets and the challenges of managing aging buildings for thousands of students.
But also said many mold cases were the product of students’ own slovenly habits.
Or that students mistook mold for dust.
Or they had preexisting allergies that fired up when they moved to a new place.
Students and parents often overreact, they said, especially when students post complaints on social media.
Documents provided by universities, along with interviews with dozens of students, show the problem is anything but minimal.
Pinning blame on students shifts attention away from causes beyond their control, such as the mold crawling inside walls at College of Charleston’s McAlister Hall.
Or at Chipley Hall at Lander University in Greenwood, where inspectors looked inside vents and ductwork and found mold that affected 46 rooms.
Or an outbreak of mold at South Tower at USC in August — before students moved in.
More clear is that mold is making many students miserable.
Kayra Rice is a student at Francis Marion University in Florence.
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 said “But it kept coming back.”
Even before college, Rice knew she was sensitive to mold based on earlier tests by her allergist. At Francis Marion, her allergies grew worse by the week. Then one day she felt her throat closing up.
Paramedics rushed her to the hospital. A doctor told her mold likely triggered a severe reaction.
“He told me, ‘You can’t stay where you’re staying. You have to move,’ ” she said.
She transferred to the University of South Carolina — which may be the poster child of the state’s mold problems.
USC had at least 840 mold-related cases during the past two years, a review of more than 1,400 work orders shows.
Kendall Guthrie was one of them. She’s a fourth-year public health student who took a crash course in the effects of mold after winter break. 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.
At first, Guthrie tried to clean the mold herself with spray she bought from a store — not realizing that the spores could spread. A day after, Guthrie said she felt even worse. She said she called FIXX, the university’s maintenance system, over and over.
“I couldn’t sleep in my room because, again, you stir up all the stuff so you literally can’t breathe in it, so my roommate and I didn’t sleep in my room that night,” Guthrie said.
Not only was her room covered in mold, but black mold blotches blossomed on the ceiling in the hallway. So did a mushroom, she said.
Guthrie’s and Rice’s experiences weren’t outliers, the Uncovered collaboration found.
A investigation 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.
‘Silent Killer’Mold is a catchall term for many strains of fungi.
Mildew is a term often used to describe mold that grows on hard surfaces, such as shower stalls and windowsills.
Cladosporium is a common brown and black mold strain found inside and outside the home. Other blackish strains include aspergillus and stachybotrys. Penicillium has a blue-green tint and an uncanny ability to knock out bacteria, which is why it is used to make penicillin.
Most strains grow best in dark and damp areas such as their fungal cousins, mushrooms and yeasts.
Researchers estimate between 3 to 10% of the general population is allergic to mold.
Molds also generate poisonous byproducts called mycotoxins.
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 a student from the Charleston area who had a full athletic scholarship to a college in Virginia. She grew sicker and sicker. Her parents began to suspect mold.
“They basically badgered the school into drilling a hole through the wall and going in with a camera,” he said.
They found the inside covered with stachybotrys inches from where she slept.
“She was breathing in trace amounts of what amounted to a chemical weapons agent,” he said.
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.
Mold affects people in many different ways, he said. One person might not feel a thing, but the person’s roommate might end up wheezing and coughing.
“The bad part is that you don’t have any prominent symptoms like you have with COVID,” he said. “When you get exposed to mold, it weakens your immune system. It tries to colonize your body, and your body fights it off. And then you get infected with other things.”
In plain sightTo 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. These documents are available to the public under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The collaboration also asked for similar documents and statistics from 15 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 leading the pack.
Despite that large number, one USC housing official said she was surprised: She thought the number would be higher.
The College of Charleston had the second most with 422 complaints, followed by Clemson with 321 complaints and mold-related inspections. North of columbia, Winthrop had more than 270 cases. And back closer to the coast, Coastal Carolina in Conway had 229 cases and Francis Marion 184.
Some cases turned out to be something other than mold, such as dust or stains.
Some inspections that originally found nothing later turned into significant mold outbreaks.
At Lander University, a college of 3,800 students in Greenwood, the university’s consultant inspected three rooms in Chipley Hall and found a small amount of mold in a unit’s shared bathroom in October of 2021.
The conslurant recommended “routine housekeeping.” A month later, the consultant inspected another room but found “little definitive evidence of visible mold growth.” Weeks passed.
In December, the consultant inspected the entire dorm when a university employee grew concerned that the building hadn’t aired out properly after carpets had been steam cleaned. This time they found blackish mold hiding in air vents, fuzzy white fungi crawling on bed frames and under mattresses, and dark blotches spreading on the back of a mirror. Forty-six rooms were affected, records show. The school told The (Greenwood) Index-Journal, an Uncovered partner, that the mold has since been cleaned up.
‘Kept coming back’For students, mold outbreaks add an unnecessary layer of stress that can disrupt their studies, or worse.
At USC, Mary Blaschke found mold covering her bathroom when she moved into Capstone House as a freshman in August 2020.
“The bathroom was just black,” Blaschke told The Daily Gamecock.
Blaschke said she bleached the bathtub and the shower over and over. The mold kept coming back. It spread to the ceiling tiles in the hallway outside of her door. Mushrooms began to grow. 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. “Then the second I go back, I would feel magically worse.”
At Clemson, Bennett Brooks, a sophomore in the duplex-style Thornhill Village residences, said he felt lethargic and had a runny nose for months.
“I thought it was allergies until I went to the doctor, and he said it was from mold,” he told The (Clemson) Tiger. “I cleaned out all the vents and got a dehumidifier, and it went away in like three days.”
At the College of Charleston, the school deployed more than 250 dehumidifiers across campus in 2018, according to an internal email. There were so many that the facilities department couldn’t empty them alone. That left students and faculty tending to them, sometimes two or three times a day.
Max 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. It’s a converted motel.
But Milliken’s room was so humid that the dehumidifier filled every five or six hours. He and his roommate couldn’t empty them fast enough because of their work and school schedules. If they lapsed, even for a short time, condensation formed on the walls, he said. Then Hurricane Dorian swiped Charleston, causing water damage to the building and a severe mold outbreak.
His roommate was especially sensitive to mold. “He was sick, sneezing, coughing, face was white and clammy.”
The university moved them to Craig Hall, which also has a history of mold. His roommate got sick again.
“And by the way, all of this was going on during the first round of midterms of my freshman year.”
Fed up, he sought a meeting with Andrew Hsu, the college’s president, who “listened intently.” When they were done, a staffer handed Milliken a commemorative coin and had him pose for a photo with Hsu. “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. Built in 2002, McAlister soon developed chronic moisture problems. As early as 2006, the school’s facilities director called its air conditioning system “a wreck.” Its issues were so bad the university is now spending $32 million to renovate it. The college also is suing the building’s contractors and developers, alleging design and construction flaws. The lawsuit’s targets are punching back with allegations that the college failed to properly maintain the dorm.
‘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.”
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. Hastily built, many structures were “often subpar in terms of craftsmanship,” a recent report by Gordian and APPA, two education industry groups.
The second wave was during the 2000s when the Baby Boomers’ children came of age. Universities sought mega donors for shiny new libraries, dorms and student centers — the kinds of amenities that lure top students and boost 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.
You can see this backlog in work orders at South Carolina universities: air conditioning systems that weren’t working properly, dirty vents and filters, and broken bathroom exhaust fans; all can lead to moisture problems — and mold.
When presented with those findings, Kirsten Kennedy, USC associate vice president for student housing and sustainability, said: “Those are the un-renovated buildings. There’s definitely a relationship there.”
She and other university officials also acknowledged that their computer systems don’t readily track mold complaints. Despite that challenge, Kennedy said “we kind of know” which buildings had the most mold problems based on work orders and staff experience. “Yeah, we should be able to push a button (to pinpoint mold patterns), but right now we can’t.”
No matter how old the building, crews do their best to beat back mold, said Rod Howell, USC’s director of facility operations, echoing his peers at other schools. “We’ve got a big campus and 7,000 rooms, so we’ve got a lot” of work. He said crews deploy with bags full of gear, including meters that measure moisture in the air, and a thermal imaging camera that can detect moisture hidden behind wall.
Mold “is very serious because we don’t want our students living anywhere it could be hazardous to their health,” he said.