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'We were breathing it in:' IU students, parents frustrated over mold response



moving

Freshmen Alessia Borzaro and Olivia Ranucci move their belongings out Oct. 17 from their room in McNutt Quad. The quad is one of many living spaces on the northwest side of campus with mold problems. Colin Kulpa Buy Photos

It was just the new environment, freshmen Julia Gibson and her roommate thought as they moved into their room in McNutt Quad in August and immediately got sick. 

But over time, they didn’t get better.

Gibson developed a throat infection and her asthma flared up, causing exhaustive coughing. Once, she had to take her inhaler in the middle of the night because it was hard to breathe.

“That was the night when my roommate and I looked at each other and were like 'OK, we need to ask someone about this tomorrow,'” Gibson said.

After two Environmental Health and Safety inspections in mid-September, mold was found in Gibson’s room in her roommate’s closet, on her desk and in the air unit.

“We were breathing it in,” Gibson said. “I feel like that’s the worst part.”

Gibson was one of the first of many.

As IU works to resolve a widespread mold issue in residence halls that has caused more than 100 students to be relocated and many to seek medical help, parents and students remain frustrated with the University’s response.

As of Friday, 643 rooms had been remediated, not all of which have contained mold, and there had been 642 requests for inspection. Remediation is the act of remedying, in particular the reversing or stopping of environmental damage, according to the University’s website. Sixty-one students were moved over the weekend after air tests came back Friday indicating high levels of mold in their rooms. 

“I can’t count the number of people — it’s in the hundreds — working on this at all levels of the University including the president,” said Tom Morrison, vice president for capital planning and facilities at IU. “We want to make sure we get the situation repaired and everything gets back to normal.”

President Michael McRobbie officially appointed Morrison to oversee the process of remediation Oct. 11, according to a statement from the University. The University website went live Oct. 12. It answers questions and provides regular updates about the mold issue. 

The University is blaming the mold on long, humid summer weather and students leaving windows open while air-conditioning was on.

The mold, Aspergillus, is a common indoor and outdoor mold that most people breathe in every day without getting sick, according to the Center for Disease Control website. People with weakened immune systems or lung disease have a higher chance of developing health problems from Aspergillus. The number of people with symptoms as a result of exposure to the mold is unclear.

However, since Oct. 11, about seven to 12 students are visiting the health center every day for mold-related symptoms, said Pete Grogg, executive director of the IU Health Center.

Official remediation by third-party contractors, ATC Environmental and Safety Management Group, started Oct. 15. Rooms in McNutt, Foster and Teter Quads are being cleaned. All rooms in Foster and McNutt will be remediated even if a room was not requested for inspection.

Remediations include cleaning of the air units, vacuuming the room twice with a High-Efficiency Particulate Air Vacuum, a vacuum that can catch very small particles, and inspection of pipe insulation. The air of each room and common room that is remediated will also be tested for mold-spores.

Students who want to permanently move to a different residence hall will be moved by request, according to the University website.

When Gibson’s mother requested a second inspection of her daughter’s room after the first indicated no signs of mold, Gibson was not notified of when workers were coming to her room.

“My roommate came in to five guys spread throughout our room, cleaning mold,” Gibson said. “She described the paper towel looking like it was covered in mud.”

She did not know the men were coming and was surprised at the amount of mold found after they found none on first inspection. 

“It was very frustrating,” Gibson said.

To Ann Martinez, mother of freshman Lizzie Martinez, the University’s response was too slow and initial information posted online was inadequate. Lizzie Martinez, like Gibson and her roommate, was sick for the first month of school before maintenance found mold in her room in mid-September.

“It was too little, too late,” Ann Martinez said.

Lizzie Martinez said the floor above her was heavily affected by the mold. She saw remediation crews coming to clean the rooms in hazmat suits and masks.

“If someone’s coming in with a mask, shouldn’t we be cautious or not living there or using masks?” Lizzie Martinez said.

In addition to and as a result of her health being compromised, Lizzie Martinez has struggled in some classes because her coughing has prevented her from getting rest.

“Spending your entire freshman year sick is no way, shape or form to start out good academically,” Lizzie Martinez said.

Ann Martinez first found out about the growing trend of students getting mold from a parent Facebook page. She said it started with a few photos of mold in students’ rooms and then grew to a whole separate page just for parents concerned with the mold issue. The page has 434 members as of Oct. 21.

“We are not trying to undermine the reputation of this University,” Ann Martinez said. “At the crux of it, the communication has been insufficient and too delayed. That builds distress and that builds distrust. And that’s human nature.”

Although appreciative of the services the University has provided thus far such as movers, Ann Martinez said she thinks they have a long way to go.

In 2016 and 2017, the University dealt with outbreaks of mold in Teter and McNutt.

“If the school knew this was an ongoing issue and it keeps happening consecutively, why are they not staying on top of the mold?” Lizzie Martinez said.

Morrison said as of right now, the school is focusing on the problem at hand but recognizes that mold has become a recurring issue that needs a longer-term solution. He reiterated the longer, humid summer conditions being one of the main causes of the mold.

“If that’s going to become the norm, then we have to be thinking about the building systems that can adapt to that,” Morrison said. “That’s on a parallel track but right now we are solely focused on trying to alleviate the problem we have.”

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