We’d like to think that our schools are safe places for our children to learn and socialize. But while we may worry on occasion about bullying behaviors or school shootings, the truth is that our kids’ health may be threatened by a danger we can’t even see.
Across the country, primary and secondary educational facilities alike have been found to be infested with potentially hazardous mold growths. These growths are not just disgusting, but they can have a major negative impact on the well-being of students.
Though it’s common to find a few mold spores in the air, interior mold growth is not a normal occurrence. Mold grows in areas that have a combination of excess moisture and organic matter. It’s commonly found where there are leaks, plumbing or drainage problems, and flooding, but there are also less obvious areas where mold tends to hide. Areas where contrasting temperatures meet — like cooling systems or walls with poor insulation — can be a virtual breeding ground for mold.
When mold keeps out of sight, it can do significant damage. It’s often able to grow unnoticed until people start to experience problems with their respiratory health.
Recently, one high school in Franklin, Ohio had to be evacuated and thoroughly cleaned after severe mold growth was discovered. In early October, teachers at Franklin High School reported their concerns about mold growth affecting the air quality throughout the facility. When air quality tests were performed, the results revealed that most of the building had mild to moderate mold growth, while a non-ventilated storage room in the school had an unusually high mold score.
While the school maintained that there was no significant health risk, they still took action to clean the mold and service the HVAC system. According to EnergyStar.gov, the filters on HVAC systems and air conditioning units should be changed every one to three months, depending on level of use. Facilities like schools need to be especially diligent about changing filters and providing a clean environment. The school’s superintendent assured the concerned public that they would continue to change HVAC filters and clear its air handlers to ensure safety and health going forward.
Although no one at Franklin High School reported significant health issues due to the mold growth, the same cannot be said for students at Duke University. Despite its prestige, numerous students have reported that Duke’s dorms regularly contain “fuzzy dripping mold.” What’s more, the school has allegedly been somewhat unhelpful in their response.
Across all three of Duke’s campuses, students have complained about the quality of the air in the dorms. Residents have complained of ongoing illnesses and respiratory problems. Many have stated they’ve seen mold dripping from their windows and ceilings or have found revolting, grimy growths upon opening their air conditioning units. At least one student tested positive for mold-induced bronchitis.
The university’s response has varied widely. Although some students have said that the organization for Housing, Dining and Residence Life has responded promptly to their requests for mold testing and cleaning, others have said that their complaints were never addressed or that attempts made by HDRL did not fix the issue.
Some have felt dismissed entirely, as echoed by Dr. John Vaughn, the director of Student Health at Duke University. He suggested that the sheer amount and variety of germs on campus, rather than inhaled mold, is the real source of students’ ongoing health problems. Vaughn stated that “in a healthy individual, inhaled mold has never been established as a cause of illness.”
Although it’s true that certain health effects that are attributed to mold growth may in fact be tied to bacterial growth instead, the two are often intertwined. The CDC notes that some people may be more sensitive to moldy environments than others and may experience throat, eye, or skin irritation, nasal stuffiness, coughing or wheezing, and even chronic lung illnesses or infections in immune-compromised individuals.
Duke students noted that they’ve been made to feel like they’re overreacting to the situation and its effects on their health. Although there may not be a definitive, scientifically proven connection between the mold growths and their health problems, the school still has a responsibility to address and eliminate the hazard.
To prevent mold growth, you should make attempts to control humidity levels, clean HVAC systems regularly, fix leaks and plumbing issues properly, and maintain proper ventilation.