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Articles / Campus Life / Avoiding Mold in College Dorms

Avoiding Mold in College Dorms

Sally Rubenstone
Written by Sally Rubenstone | March 26, 2013

Question: I am very worried about college dorms. My son had to switch high schools due to mold toxicity. He developed brain abnormalities that cause horrific fatigue but also reduce the blood flow to the brain and glucose metabolism. He’s had every test imaginable, and he has neurotoxicity from mold even though he left the school after five months. People don’t understand what mold can do to the body, and the only way to resolve it is to remediate the home or building or move.

I understand many dorms are loaded with mold (one college had to house students on a cruise ship while they were cleaning out the mold in the dorms).

Is there a way to search mold information for each college? My son has already been admitted to several colleges and has gotten some great merit aid, but what good is it, if he can’t attend due to the horrors of mold?

Mold in college dorms does seem to be a growing problem (no pun intended). This may be partially because there’s growing awareness, too, but I suspect that there are other contributing factors as well (e.g., dwindling dollars earmarked for facilities overhauls and clean-ups). This morning, when I searched the College Confidential discussion forum for “College dorms + mold,” I was shocked to find nearly ten pages of results, many of them citing specific schools where mold had led to everything from coughing epidemics to evacuations. So it’s definitely out there, although there seems to be some debate over how much harm it typically causes. Certainly for some students like your son, the answer is a clear-cut, “A lot!”

Earlier today, I spoke to a disabilities coordinator at a college in my orbit. She suggested that, as you help your son select a college from among those that have admitted him, you should begin by contacting the disabilities services office at all the schools that your son may potentially attend.

This official can tell you what the college policies are when it comes to selecting on-campus housing for students with severe mold allergies, what happens to those who need to change dorms, and what provisions are made for students who feel that they cannot live on campus at all, even if they are “required” to do so. (Some financial aid packages include a housing allowance for students who elect to live off campus. If your son has a documented disability–in this case a mold allergy–that makes it impossible for him to live on campus, then it’s likely that ANY college, regardless of the housing rules, will accommodate him, although you may have to jump through multiple hoops to make this happen.)

Here are some steps you should take as you help your son choose his college.

1. As noted above, contact disabilities coordinators at the colleges that have accepted your son and ask them about possible accommodations (literal accommodations … as in where he will live … as well as the other kind of “accommodations” … i.e., what sort of special assistance he would get should he need to relocate or move off campus).

2. Send concurrent emails to these additional officials on each campus: the director of the health services, the dean of residence life, and the facilities/physical plant manager. (These folks may have varying titles but you should be able to easily figure out which departments to contact, even if they’re called something a little different. In some college directories you may find an “Environmental Services” department. If you spot it, put it on your email list.)

Your message should inquire about past mold problems in campus buildings … especially (but not exclusively) in dorms. Ask when and where these problems occurred and how they were remedied. Ask also about the best choice of living situation for your son, revealing as much of his health history as is comfortable.

Don’t send one email that is copied to multiple officials. If you do that, each official may figure, “This isn’t my bailiwick; let the other guys reply.” So send them individually. This approach might also net you some conflicting responses that could be useful albeit confusing.

3. Ask for documentation from your son’s physician in case you need to provide written proof of his mold-related illnesses.

4. Visit as many of your son’s prospective campuses as you can over the next few weeks as he makes his final choice. Not only can you speak with disability coordinators (and other officials) in person, but also you can talk directly to students about mold and other health concerns in their dorm rooms. You can also keep your eyes open for visible mold or for other indications that it may be lurking (e.g., outdated, dirty air-conditioning units, water damage, leaks, telltale smells).

5. Post a query on the College Confidential discussion forum asking parents and current college students about their own experiences with mold at the colleges your son is considering. If these schools have their own dedicated forums on CC, you can post right on those; otherwise try the Parents’ Forum or College Life. Hopefully, too, CC members who are reading this column will have more familiarity with this issue than “The Dean” does and can add to this advice.

As your son chooses his college, you will want to carefully consider the answers you get to your questions. Above all, you should gauge how forthcoming, sympathetic, and cooperative the college personnel you contacted appeared to be. One college official told me today that institutions in the Southwest have the least trouble with mold because of the dry climate. So perhaps your son has one or more of these schools on his roster. But it seems to me that the problem is prevalent enough that your son could land in a moldy dorm room almost anywhere, despite the precautions you’re taking now. So, although you may not be able to completely avoid the problem, you do want to make sure that he ends up at a place where the administration will be accessible and receptive.

Good luck to you and your son as you start your “investigation” and make the big decision just ahead.


Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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