Mold School

By Sara Adams and Desiree Smith

When sophomore theater major Lisa Jackson moved into her Stevenson Towers residence hall room Aug. 18, she was greeted by a white fungus.

Jackson found mold on her desk chair and on her roommate’s mattress.

“Our walls at one point were really, really damp and everything kept sliding off of them,” Jackson said. “The furniture in the living room was really damp when we moved in.”

Mold began to appear in Stevenson C and D towers in August after the air conditioning was turned off between the summer and fall semesters. For some students, it is more than just a nuisance.

“I’ve been sick since I’ve been here. My nose is always runny,” said Aldo Martinez, a junior mechanical engineering major and seventh floor resident of Tower D. “I don’t know if it’s because of mold or what, but it’s something. If it was seasonal allergies, I think it’d be over by now.”

Though mold can be harmless for some people, those with respiratory problems such as asthma, seasonal allergies or mold allergies can suffer. Reactions can include anything from coughing and a runny nose to more flu-like symptoms or a respiratory infection. Other symptoms that could develop include sinus problems, headaches, difficulty breathing and skin rashes, said William Oleckno, a retired professor in the School of Allied Health.

It can sometimes be difficult to diagnose mold as the cause for people that are used to having these symptoms, but there are some anecdotal ways of detection.

Junior history major Colin Laferle purchased an air purifier after two weeks of allergic reactions.

“We were told there was mold in some of the rooms, especially our floor,” said Laferle, who lives on the seventh floor of D tower. “Our CA mentioned it. The first two weeks I was here I reacted violently with allergies. I was coughing a lot and couldn’t get any sleep. After my CA mentioned the mold, I bought an air purifier. It worked well.”

Nicholas Money, botany professor at the University of Miami of Ohio and author of the book “Carpet Monsters and Killer Spores,” said there are blood tests to test one’s sensitivity to mold, but they are not that helpful. The best way to tell if one is allergic to mold is to leave the room. If the person feels better, it’s a good indication of mold allergies.

If symptoms persist, students should contact the residence halls and look for a room in a different area, said Bob Albanese, associate vice president of finance and facilities.

“Certainly we don’t want any of our students, faculty and staff to be in an environment that’s unhealthy,” Albanese said. “That’s always our number one priority: health and safety.”

Though mold spores are always present in the air, Oleckno said if mold is visible, it should be cleaned up.

“It can become a more severe problem,” Oleckno said. “The most important thing with mold is to remove any standing water or damp areas. Mold needs water to grow, that’s why it’s often found in basements. Any wet carpeting or anything that’s damp really needs to be removed. If the problem is very great, you really need an expert to come in to remove it.”

Environmental Health and Safety and the physical plant respond to complaints regarding issues like mold in the residence halls, said Kevin Marshall, industrial hygienist for Enivironmental Health and Safety.

“We did some testing and absolutely found everything in a reasonable range,” Albanese said. “Certainly if something recently came up we would refer to environmental safety and do a re-check. As far as I know we sent officials over immediately and they’ve done some testing, and as far as I know tests came back in an acceptable range.”

There are no federal, state, county or university regulations regarding the amount of acceptable mold in a given building.

Signs posted on each floor instruct residents to keep their air conditioning on at all times to reduce the humidity in the air.

“Air conditioning is a de-humidifier,” said Sandi Carlisle, associate director of residential facilities. “If the air conditioning is on, it prevents mold from growing.”

Some students find the constant running of the air conditioners uncomfortable.

“I was in the elevators one day and made a comment about how it’s always freezing in my room,” sophomore psychology major Sarah Streed said. “The hall director said, ‘Well, don’t turn off your air conditioning unless you want a moldy room.’”

When students can shut off their air conditioning depends on the weather, Carlisle said. The air conditioning will remain on until the heating plant switches the system to heat. The plant controls how forcefully the air blowers are running and the blowers are adjusted by the temperature outside.

Junior geology major Andrew Greenhagen noticed a lot of humidity in his room and used a hygrometer to measure the moisture content and humidity of the air. At one point, his device read between 70 and 80 percent humidity.

Workers from the heating plant came and changed his air filter at the end of August and the workers measured humidity at 68 percent with their own hygrometers. According to the Environmental Protection Agency Web site, any humidity levels above 60 percent can cause mold growth.

In spring 2002, Stevenson Towers began using a new chilled-water air cooling system. The system is used to save money, according to a 2004 NIU press release. The university saves about $2.8 million a year by using the chilled water system and more energy-efficient lighting.

Though the university saves money by using the chilled-water system, these types of systems can be more susceptible to molds and algae problems in large buildings, a local heating contractor said.

“In general, the cooling towers are more susceptible to mold than air-to-air systems,” said Denver Dingus, a residential estimator for DeKalb Mechanical.

Dingus said the likelihood of mold growth associated with this type of air conditioner depends on the frequency of maintenance.

Kevin Vines, chief engineer of the heating plant, said the system was cleaned when it was installed three years ago and the university now maintains a chemical level to keep corrosion and bacteria out of the pipes.

Stevenson is the only residence hall equipped with air conditioning and is the most expensive. That does not sit well with students like Jackson, whose walls and furniture were damp for the first week of school.

“I love that I’m paying huge amounts of money to live here and [the university gave] me moldy furniture,” Jackson said.