Is mold in dorms making you sick?

A sample of mold which covered the inside of the HVAC unit in freshman Adriana Qehaja’s dorm room in Bemis Lawrence Hall. Qehaja said she took the sample as proof of what she saw when maintenance came to replace her dorm room’s HVAC unit. Qehaja moved into Bemis Lawrence Hall in June and experienced many symptoms she attributes to the mold.  “I just want to live in a clean environment,” Qehaja said.

Nicole Ziege & Rebekah Alvey

Bowling Green freshman Adriana Qehaja never expected to fall into illness as a result of living in a WKU dorm. Within one week of moving into Bemis Lawrence Hall in June, the only on-campus housing option for students during WKU’s summer break, Qehaja said she came down with strep throat.

She said her symptoms escalated to tonsillitis, a second strep throat diagnosis, severe headaches and flu-like symptoms which included a fever, sensitive eyes, muscle weakness, fatigue and shortness of breath. Qehaja said the diagnoses resulted in an emergency surgery to remove her tonsils over the summer.

When Qehaja returned to her dorm room two weeks before school started, she said she began having “unbearable and throbbing” headaches. She said the pain left her unable to stand up on certain days and prevented her from going through sorority recruitment and other fall activities.

“This has completely changed my life,” Qehaja said.

During the summer, Qehaja said she thought her illnesses were due to a weak immune system. However, soon after the fall semester started, she discovered mold growing in her dorm’s HVAC unit.

In response to the problem, WKU officials are going to take steps to check for and remove any mold in residence halls.

“We are committed to providing a high quality living experience for all of our student residents,” said Brian Kuster, vice president for Enrollment and Student Experience, in the statement. “We are taking swift action and a comprehensive approach in addressing these issues.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health effects can vary when someone is exposed to mold and damp or moldy environments, including nasal stuffiness, coughing or wheezing and throat, eye and skin irritation.

When she realized she had mold in her HVAC unit, Qehaja contacted her resident assistant, who told Qehaja that she put in two maintenance requests to have the unit cleaned. Qehaja also submitted a maintenance request herself through InSite Maintenance Connection on the Housing & Residence Life website.

Qehaja’s resident assistant declined to comment or confirm the submitted requests.

Despite the requests and almost a month of waiting, Qehaja said nothing was done to fix the mold. After contacting her doctor, she was recommended to move out of the room.

“I just want to live in a clean environment,” Qehaja said.

To move out of a room, a student may request special accommodations for medical, psychological or other “unique and unusual” reasons. A student must provide documentation like a doctor’s note in order for a request to be considered and approved, according to Housing and Residence Life’s Required Housing Policy.

On Sept. 11, Qehaja took a video of the mold inside her HVAC unit and posted the video to Twitter. In the tweet, she tagged WKU and President Timothy Caboni with the hashtag #bemislawrencehall.

In response to her tweet, WKU Housing asked Qehaja to submit a maintenance request to resolve the issue. Qehaja informed Housing about her RA’s previously submitted requests, to which Housing said it would contact Pam West, director of facilities for Housing and Residence Life.

Qehaja said she was never contacted by West or anyone from Housing and Residence Life. West was not available for comment.

After the video was posted, Caboni privately messaged Qehaja on Twitter about the issue, asking her for her full name and dorm room number. Qehaja received a new HVAC unit for her room.

When a maintenance worker removed the inside of the old unit, Qehaja stopped to record the unit, which was coated in mold.

“That was what I’ve been living with since June,” Qehaja said. 

Living on the same floor in Bemis, Fulton freshman Jenise Ware said she and her roommate found mold in their HVAC unit during MASTER Plan.

Ware said she started experiencing flu-like symptoms, including a runny nose and a tight feeling in her chest, after she moved into her room. Her doctor told her to check for mold in the room, and she said she found what looked like black mold in her HVAC unit. She submitted a maintenance request, and maintenance cleaned the mold before the semester started.

Ware said she feels like the university is not concerned about potential mold in Bemis, Pearce-Ford Tower and other residence halls. She said she saw Qehaja’s video of the mold in her HVAC unit circulate on Twitter, and she thinks students should not have to voice their concerns over Twitter to get health issues addressed.

“It should have been checked before I moved in,” Ware said.

The majority of reports of mold in residence hall HVAC units have been issued from Bemis and PFT, according to InSite’s “Service Request Status” database.

Bemis was built in 1966 and renovated in 2003, and PFT was built in 1970 and renovated in 2009. Bemis and Barnes-Campbell Hall are scheduled to close in fall 2021 and be torn down for the creation of new pod-style housing, according to Housing & Residence Life.

Qehaja received a doctor’s note to switch rooms, and she said she has been approved to move to Hilltopper Hall. However, she said she is still expected to pay the difference in costs between living in the two residence halls. Hilltopper Hall costs $2,807 per year, while Bemis Lawrence Hall costs $2,245 per year—a difference of $562.

In total, Qehaja said she paid $14,000 in medical fees with insurance from her time in Bemis.

Qehaja went to the Housing and Residence Life office, where she said she spoke to Lana Kunkel, associate director of housing operations, about her issue. Qehaja said Kunkel told her she could be moved to PFT or Douglas Keen Hall. Qehaja said she did not consider this an improvement, due to rumors of mold in both halls.

Neither Kunkel nor Mike Reagle, the director of Housing and Residence Life, responded to phone calls from Herald reporters despite multiple attempts for comment. Natalie Smith, Bemis Lawrence hall director, declined to comment. 

In a statement from the WKU administration to the Herald, WKU said it “has mounted an aggressive effort in three residence halls following isolated reports of the presence of mold in or around air handling units.”

In the statement, WKU Director of Environmental Health & Safety David Oliver said personnel in Environmental Health & Safety have identified what appears to be “common moisture-driven mold,” likely worsened because of extended periods of increased humidity and equipment failures within the facilities.

Oliver said he and the department did not find evidence of a systemic problem, but they want to act quickly “to remediate any existing issues and do everything we can to prevent recurrences.”

“Out of an abundance of caution and in an effort to be proactive, we are deploying all available resources to go room by room, floor by floor, beginning with Bemis-Lawrence Hall, to remove and remediate mold from these facilities,” President Timothy Caboni said in WKU’s statement.  

“We also will bring in whatever resources are necessary to replace and repair air handling equipment to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.”

According to WKU’s statement, crews started working Thursday to clean air handling units and surfaces throughout Bemis Lawrence Hall and will continue working through the weekend. All rooms and public spaces in Barnes-Campbell Hall and PFT will also be treated.

In addition to the air units in individual rooms, crews will inspect all building ventilation systems and make any necessary repairs to ensure that all systems are functioning properly, according to WKU’s statement. 

According to WKU, students may report any maintenance request or concern by calling 270-745-3143. 

Editors note: a previous version of the story attributed Center for Disease Control instead of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The mistake has been corrected and the College Heights Herald regrets this error. 

Nicole Ziege can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow Nicole Ziege on Twitter at @NicoleZiege.