When I got my room assignment in the summer of 2019 before my first semester at college, I was so excited. I felt lucky that I was placed into Martyrs’ Court Goupil because that was one of the few freshmen dorms with air conditioning. However, a few months after I moved in, I started to feel tired all the time, had stomach pain, and a harder time focusing. I went to the doctor multiple times, but they could not find anything medically wrong with me. Doctors assumed it was due to depression, and it got so severe that I was forced to take a medical leave in November. In January, my doctor from home had me take a urine test to check for mycotoxins (toxins produced by mold that are released into the air) in my body. When the results came back, my doctors, family, and I were shocked to learn that I had a lethal level of mold in my body from my dorm room. Luckily, I was not severely depressed, but I had to get three midlines (an external vascular access device) and over fifty intravenous treatments over the course of five months. During treatment, I always thought about how I had never heard of mold poisoning, yet it made me so sick. I was determined to find out more about mold poisoning, specifically in college students. Often, university students are unaware of mold in their dorms, which can lead to preventable health issues.
In this essay, I will explore the symptoms of mold poisoning as well as imitator diagnoses. I will share interviews I conducted with two Fordham University students who were victims of mold poisoning on the Fordham Rose Hill campus within the last four years. I will also share two additional interviews with students from outside universities that were exposed to mold and unfortunately have long lasting residual effects as a result. Furthermore, I will investigate federal agencies and three different universities’ responses and regulations of mycotoxin illness. Finally, I will share ways mold can be controlled––to save thousands of students from being poisoned.
One of the main reasons that college students are unaware of mold is due to never hearing about it or knowing the dangers of it. I did not physically see mold once in my room, but it was in the air I was breathing twelve hours a day during my first semester at Fordham. I was diagnosed with mold poisoning in late January after my first semester at Fordham. At this point, I was home on medical leave as a result of my symptoms. When my test result showed various strains of mycotoxins, I immediately tested my home. I wanted to make sure that my home did not contain any mycotoxins, so I could recover and not continue to expose myself. I received the mycotoxin report for my home and thankfully the results were negative, leading me to the realization that my dorm was the culprit of my exposure. One of the mycotoxins I tested positive for is called Chaetoglobosin A, which is commonly found in particularly old buildings with water damage or extreme water exposure. Martyrs, where I lived when I was exposed to this type of mycotoxin, is one of the oldest dorms on campus, and the wall my bed leaned up against was shared with four showers. I also did not have any symptoms prior to living in Martyrs; however, the symptoms itself can be difficult to diagnose.
Mold poisoning is hard to diagnose because the symptoms can easily be mistaken for other disorders. Symptoms of mycotoxin illness include sinus congestion, night sweats, body temperature dysregulation, diarrhea, fatigue, headache, and watery eyes. Mycotoxin illness can also cause weight gain or loss, but this is problematic for diagnosing as college students are known to gain or lose weight once they start drinking and eating dorm food (Biscoe). Some imitator diagnoses are chronic fatigue syndrome, sinusitis, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), fibromyalgia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Biscoe). It is an incredible amount of pressure to expect college students to know the signs and symptoms of mold if doctors around the country have a hard time diagnosing mold poisoning. Students expect their university housing to be safe; some students around the country have been victims of not knowing the warning signs and symptoms of mold.
I was the first Fordham student I knew of that had issues with mold, but nine months after my diagnosis, I was able to connect with two other Fordham students to share their experiences with mold. Both students are female, but both chose to remain anonymous. Student A was a sophomore at Fordham in 2018 living on campus in Tierney Hall; however, she had to move out due to being exposed to toxic mold. Student A “had to move out after the first semester because it made [her] so sick the entire time. [She] had a 102º fever for six days straight and would get intermittently bedridden for the rest of the semester.” She did not know her room had a mold problem until some of her floor-mates’ clothing started to grow mold. Aside from compensating her with a waived early move out fee (so she could move out from her moldy room), Student A felt like the university did not provide her with support. Luckily, Student A has no current mycotoxin illness, no lingering issues, and is now a senior at Fordham.
Like Student A, Student B was also exposed to mold at Fordham. She was living in Martyrs her freshman year (in 2017) but could see the mold in her room. Student B “came back from winter break, ice had melted and pooled above [her] room. It caused mold to form above the ceiling over [her] bed. Pieces of the moldy ceiling would fall on [her] face while [she] slept and [she] was really sick for two months.” For the two months, Student B said she experienced “a constant headache, a sore throat, and constantly feeling like I had a cold.” Fordham fixed the ceiling, but not the leak that caused mold to continue to grow and cause illness. She continually reported it to her residential advisor (RA), but no one ever fixed the root issue—the leak. Student B is also graduating this year and is now healthy again. Students A and B were lucky in the sense of long-term effects, but two other students I talked to were not so lucky.
While mold poisoning has been a major issue at Fordham, it is not the only University that has been unable to provide safe and healthy living conditions for students living on campus. Student C and Student D both have residual effects from their mold exposure. Student C was a freshman at Salisbury University in Maryland in 2015. Student C was in remission from Lyme disease until she “felt like [she] fell off a cliff.” Student C told me “[she] had extreme cognitive issues, so bad [she] lost the ability to read and ended up getting periodic paralysis. [She] ended up having to treat the mold via PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line for nine months.” Even though this was five years ago, Student C still has cognitive issues from her dorm mold exposure. By the time Student C was able to pinpoint that her mold came from her dorm, years had passed and it was too late to make a formal complaint.
Student D was a freshman and sophomore the past two years at Bryant University in Rhode Island. He lived on campus, and “now has mast cell problems and a compromised immune system.” Student D had mold in his dorm rooms which made him always feel sick. Student D told his RA about the mold problem multiple times his sophomore year, but no one ever followed up. This year, he is a junior and decided to not live on campus. Student C and Student D both had illness from mold and now have residual effects. They should not have to live with lingering issues; however, due to lack of transparency and help, they do.
Student A, Student B, Student C, and Student D all lived in different dormitories, but all of them were exposed to mold, which caused serious illness. There are different types of mold and mycotoxins, but they all cause similar symptoms and are toxic. All of their symptoms were caused by living in a toxic environment. Students and parents often assume that the dorms are nontoxic, but that is not always the case. If they were aware of the dangers of mold poisoning, they most likely would have been able to avoid mold poisoning or catch it sooner. Being sick is mentally and physically challenging; feeling sick constantly and going through medical treatment is not easy—I would know. The effects of mycotoxin illness also prevent students from successfully matriculating through academia, thereby inhibiting their futures. There should have been no reason why I or any of the four students got sick. Spreading awareness and sharing stories about mold poisoning on campuses will prevent others from being poisoned.
Learning about the dangers and consequences of mold is essential to protecting yourself and others who could be affected by mold, especially because many organizations do not provide protection against mold poisoning. Mold does not impact everyone as severely as others, but mold it is not healthy for anyone. 75% of people are able to live in toxic environments because their body can expel it at the same rate they are exposed to it. 25% of people are genetically predisposed to be unable to remove toxins (Biscoe). Currently, mold growth does not have any federal standards from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or Center of Disease Control (CDC) (Koza). This lack of regulation is highly problematic because there are no ways to force universities to investigate mold. The regulations for mold should not be left up to cities or states because it affects people all over the country and it is too serious of an issue to leave up to local and state government. At minimum, universities should require dorms with minimal mold and protections for students who are exposed to mold on campus. I had a medical note from my doctor asking Fordham to test my dorm room for mold prior to the arrival of my sophomore year. They assured me that O’Hare Hall had no mold and was safe for me but did not provide any documentation. Looking back, I should have asked for a test readout; a few days after moving in, I noticed mold on the ceiling and gathered my things and immediately left. When I confronted the Residence Hall Association (RHA), they said that they do not know how to test for mold; therefore, the RHA does not test for it. I was told by a member of the RHA that the RHA is the department to go through for all dorm-related inquiries—including testing for mold. It is highly alarming that both of my Fordham dorms had mold that was undisclosed to me. Although I do understand that taking responsibility for mold can be intimidating, a staff member recognizing this issue could help keep students healthy. It only takes one staff member to help bring this issue to light and to help keep living spaces safe. Otherwise, students who are not aware will continue to live in toxic environments and have detrimental health effects.
Moldy environments are toxic; however, the idea that people should not be protected from mold under federal agencies is discrimination. Everyone, regardless of their health, should be able to live and work in mold-free environments and be protected by at least one federal agency. Just because it might only affect a handful of students a year does not mean they should be poisoned over something that is 100% preventable. Especially in today’s world, mold can easily be detected for a low cost. Anyone can purchase a mold-testing kit on Amazon for as little as $9 to test multiple areas of their living environment (“Mold Armor Test Kit”). Universities might not admit to mold on campus because they are at risk for getting sued or for having to test hundreds of rooms, which costs them money. However, if universities work on testing rooms and cleaning their dorms, universities should not have to worry about students getting sick or suing. Once a mold problem is controlled, the toxins can be eliminated and become a safe environment. There should be no reasons why people do not know the dangers of mold or for universities not providing students with a toxic free living environment.
I have learned this past year that mold is a very serious issue, but it does not have to be. It only takes one vigilant staff member to speak up and help keep dorms safer. Mold can produce toxins extremely harmful to humans; therefore, universities should want their living areas to be mold free. When students are sick, it holds their academic and occupational success back. This ultimately impacts their university as they are representing the institution while performing worse in school and the workforce. Mycotoxin illness also suppresses one’s immune system. College campuses are known for spreading illnesses rapidly, including Covid-19. If universities truly cared about not spreading infections and viruses, they would invest time and resources into one of the root issues of illnesses. I am lucky that I am healthy enough now to spread awareness about mold poisoning to students who live on campus. Mold is something that many students can get sick from; with the help of protections from universities and federal agencies, mold poisoning could be significantly reduced. It is important for students to check their dorm rooms and get tested for mycotoxins if they start to have an unexplainable illness. Mold is scary, but it does not have to be with proper protections and awareness.
Biscoe, Ashley. “Could Your Unexplained Symptoms Actually Be Mold Toxicity?” The Blog of Attune Functional Medicine, 19 Oct. 2020, http://www.attunemed.com/blog/could-your-unexplained-symptoms-actually-be-mold-toxicity/.
Koza, Mary Beth, et al. “Best Practices of Microbial Growth (Commonly Referred to as Mold) Response in a University Setting.” UNC Institutional Integrity and Risk Management Environment Health and Safety, 2019, http://ehs.unc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/229/2019/08/best-practices-of-microbial-growth-response-in-a-university-setting.pdf.
Mold Armor. “Mold Armor Test Kit .” Mold Armor for Households, 2021, http://www.moldarmor.com/product-family/home/mold-armor-test-kit/.
Student A. Personal interview. Oct. 2020.
Student B. Personal interview. Oct. 2020.
Student C. Personal interview. Oct. 2020.
Student D. Personal interview. Oct. 2020.