Mold Around Campus Caused by Humidity and Covid-19 Prevention Practices

From dorm rooms in Stimson House to the Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Library to the The Phillipian’s own Newsroom, various reports of mold in campus buildings have surfaced in recent months. According to Bronwyn Boyle, Manager of Environment Health and Safety Manager for the Office of the Physical Plant, two main factors contributed to the presence of mold on campus: the humidity of this summer and the increased incorporation of fresh air into buildings to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“Since mold is found everywhere outdoors, you can imagine how easily mold spores can be brought indoors (on clothing, in the air, etc.). Mold spores grow where there are nutrients (organics, such as wood/paper, old food) and moisture… This summer we experienced a lot of rain and hot/humid conditions. In addition, Phillips Academy followed C.D.C. recommendations to increase outside air in our ventilation systems during COVID. This combination resulted in our situation at the [OWHL],” wrote Boyle in an email to The Phillipian.

In an email sent to families of students who live in Stimson, Dr. David Gardner, the Cluster Dean of Pine Knoll, the cluster in which Stimson resides, explained that Andover custodial staff completed targeted cleaning of affected rooms on September 14. According to Gardner’s email, Boyle and Gilbert Major, Senior Manager of Operations and Maintenance at OPP, inspected both Stimson and its rooms and found no evidence of “black mold.” Although culturally thought to be a more toxic form of mold, black mold has not been proven to be more harmful, according to the C.D.C. Gardner declined to comment on this article, and Boyle did not respond to inquiries about mold in Stimson.

“We take the health and safety of our students very seriously, so I wanted to write to you all to share the school’s response to these concerns… As a further measure, we have reached out to an outside company to do additional cleaning, and our facilities team is also taking care to clean out the radiator covers and set up a number of air purifiers. They will continue to monitor the situation closely,” wrote Gardner in an email to Stimson families.

According to Hannah Ono ’22, a Stimson resident who reported dampness in her room, outside professionals cleaned her room on September 22. Ono first became aware of the mold issue after a dormmate showed Ono the mold in the dormmate’s room. Ono lives right above that room. A few days later, Ono began to notice a bad smell coming from her closet.

“I think the smell was wafting through the hallway [in my dormmate’s hall], and that was a red flag…. I didn’t see any mold physically [in my closet] but it smelled really bad. I would air it out but it would come back in the next few hours. So I removed all my clothes from my closet so the smell wouldn’t stick to it. We talked to the house counselors and Dean Gardner and we were able to get professionals to clean out the room. I’m not entirely sure what they did about my closet but they were pretty thorough with cleaning the walls and the ceiling,” said Ono.

When asked to describe the conditions in the affected hall, Lexington Secreto PG’22, another Stimson resident, similarly alluded to the smell. She reflected on a time she went to visit a room that had been affected by the mold.

“Just leading up to it in the hallway, I was already kind of wary about going in there because I could automatically feel myself switching to breathing from my mouth because I didn’t want that anywhere up my nose. So I get in there and it’s just a warm, disgusting, dry feeling in the back of your mouth. And that’s the closest I got to it, there’s no way I could describe the smell,” said Secreto.

Current Stimson resident Melissa Damasceno ’22 had heard about humid conditions in Stimson before moving in from a friend. A day after she had heard about the mold in her hallmate’s room, Damasceno’s asthma flared up, causing her to go to the Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center, where she received an inhaler. According to the C.D.C., exposure to mold can cause sensitivity and difficulty breathing to those with allergies or asthma. Outside professional cleaners also cleaned Damasceno’s room.

“Finally, they did bring in cleaners and they found mildew in my room. They ended up vacuuming everything out and cleaning it out and now it’s okay, but my allergies are still acting up. Generally, the main issue with the mold is kind of a negligence to address it early on… just because Stimson is known for being more humid and especially with this tropical season, it was bound to happen,” said Damasceno.

Serena Lee ’22, who also lives in Stimson, thanked the house counseling and Dean team for helping resolve the issue.

“There was mold, but Dr. Gardner and the house counselors have been super helpful. We’ve been very grateful for their support and assistance. [The mold] got cleaned on Monday [September 21], I believe. They had a professional team come in, and I am grateful for their help,” said Lee.

Shawna Egan, Interim Director of the OWHL, likewise pointed to the humidity and rain of this summer as a cause of the mold in the library. When moving the OWHL’s furniture back to its original locations after the separated study carrels from last year, OWHL staff noticed the presence of mold in the basement group study rooms early this summer. By the time school began, the study rooms were thoroughly cleaned.

However, according to Egan, the presence of mold motivated the staff to check for mold in other locations. Mold was then found in the books in the basement stacks. Some of the stacks are currently closed off for public use as an outside company cleans the affected books, according to Egan.

“That entire side [of the basement], as you probably saw during Opening of School, was closed down to be cleaned by an outside company that specializes in mold mediation. At this point, they’ve made it halfway so we’ve been able to open up those front stacks, those are no longer closed off. The process of getting rid of the mold is to freeze the books and that kills any active mold and then you clean it, and you’re essentially cleaning off inactive mold at that point,” said Egan.

Due to the discovery of mold in the stacks, the “grand reopening” of the OWHL, originally scheduled to occur on September 8, was postponed. Egan hopes that they will be able to hold the event in the beginning of the Winter Term.

“The opening of the library was supposed to be this grand reopening of this space back to what it should be, versus the last two years with study carrels, people weren’t able to sit close to each other, and all that… I don’t know exactly when all the work that needs to be done over there needs to be completed but it just didn’t seem right to have a grand reopening and to have an area that is inaccessible,” said Egan.

Dehumidifiers have been placed throughout the OWHL to combat the presence of outside air, according to Egan. A dehumidifier has also been placed in the Newsroom, located in the basement of Morse Hall, after reports of mold both recently and last year, according to former News Editor Sophia Lee ’21. In addition to utilizing mold technical specialists and response teams to address future cases of mold, Boyle stated that OPP will review their Heating, Ventilation, and Air Condition (HVAC) systems to “identify areas for long-term improvement.” Egan believes that will come in the form of adding a dehumidifying aspect to the system.

Boyle additionally listed actions that the Andover community can incorporate into their daily lives to prevent mold growth.

“Clean up after yourself. Don’t leave food or dirty dishes. Dispose of food in the trash cans. Don’t leave wet clothes or towels in a pile. If you see a leak, report it to your house counselor. If a dehumidifier is running, please do not turn it off,” wrote Boyle.

Editor’s Note: Melissa Damasceno ’22 is a Managing Digital Editor for The Phillipian.