When environmental management and protection freshman Ryan Graul first saw mold covering his windowsill and wall surrounding his bed in his dorm, he said he felt his nose was “burning.” With his asthma, Graul said the mold prompted him to feel sick. 

In January, there were 105 student-filled reports of mold – 60 of which were located in the Sierra Madre dorms from Jan. 1 to Jan 24. Fall quarter, University Housing received work order requests for mold found in eight dorm rooms. Cal Poly attributed the rise in mold reports to the rainstorm, as well as issues with ventilation, cleaning and maintenance. 

Although University Housing emailed on-campus residents that the mold would be cleaned within 24 hours, Graul said the mold in his room was not cleaned until nearly a week later.

For six consecutive nights, Graul moved to somewhere new to sleep in order to avoid the mold. He was offered temporary housing by his resident advisers but never received confirmation of where he could stay. He stayed in friends’ dorms until one room in Sierra Madre also had mold in it, and two people there got sick. He then decided to drive back home near Los Angeles on Wednesday, Jan. 18 — after a full day of classes — to be in a place where he wouldn’t feel sick. Graul didn’t move back in until that Saturday. 

Freshmen living in the concrete Sierra Madre dorms, built in 1969, experienced similar issues of seeing mold in their room – four students told Mustang News they relocated to avoid being around it.

“I just wish there was a quicker response and that the concerns were taken seriously because I know I wasn’t the only one that had mold concerns ,and then it took a significant amount of time before people actually responded,” Graul said.

University spokesperson Matt Lazier told Mustang News that Housing Custodial Operations is not aware of requests that took more than three days to fulfill. Some reports were over the weekend or after business hours which might have caused some delays, Lazier said.

Students are responsible for keeping their living spaces clean during the year, including wiping down condensation, ventilating, vacuuming and washing and drying wet items.

University Housing sent students an email on how to prevent mold in their spaces following rainstorms in early January, where San Luis Obispo received up to 4.41 inches of rain one day. The heavy rains prompted Cal Poly to cancel the first two days of classes as multiple reports of flooding and closed roads were in effect.

Residents were told to “maintain space” around their furniture and to prevent damp spaces by drying wet or damp shoes, towels, clothing, as well as cleaning up any spills or clutter.

However mold reports included rooms that did not have windows, such as bathrooms, Lazier said. These reports speak more to “issues with ventilation/circulation and maintenance and cleaning,” Lazier said.

Across campus, there are filters labeled with “potential for upgrade” but have not been due to funding limitations, one employee from the Facilities and Management Department told Mustang News. These filters allow for cleaner air to be circulated, but are not the main “strategy” for cleaning up mold, as that is what the cleaning solutions are for and the email suggestions are for.

Ryan Graul, Sierra Madre Tower 7 | Courtesy
Kayla Guzman, Sierra Madre Tower 3 | Courtesy
Delainee Fernandes, Sierra Madre Tower 5 | Courtesy

“During the winter months, especially when there is rainy weather, mold can grow quickly,” University Housing wrote in an email on Jan. 18 to residents. “This is a unique year in that we have experienced more rainfall than usual.”

In 2017, students were moved from their residence halls after a mold outbreak credited to recent rainfall. There were 70 mold complaints from January to February 2017, compared to 25 the entire year prior.

About one hundred yards away from Graul’s dorm, in Sierra Madre Tower 3, communications freshman Ava Barron saw “a really big clump” of mold around her window and on the wall behind her desk.

After seeing the mold, Barron and her roommate moved their furniture to the center of the room. They then stayed with friends. Barron relocated to a hotel for two nights since other dorms without mold were becoming “overcrowded” with people that had also relocated.

Barron’s neighbor, history freshman Sammi Bribiesca-Quintana, who has asthma, discovered she had mold in her dorm the morning after she woke up sweaty and with a fever. Her head was “pounding,” and she was having more asthma attacks than usual. She filed a service order that day and for the following two nights, she and her roommate stayed in a friend’s dorm.

However, she also noticed mold along the wall near the window in her friend’s dorm while staying there.

Sammi Bribiesca-Quintana in her doorway after being displaced from the mold in early January. Credit: Ashley Spinoglio | Mustang News

“I was definitely very stressed out, because I’m still kind of getting back into the flow of being in school again.”

Sammi Bribiesca-Quintana

In Sierra Madre Tower 2, food science freshman Giocomo Ruiz first noticed mold on his wall and across his windowsill. He filed a maintenance request, and the next day the mold was cleaned up. 

Since October, Ruiz said he was experiencing allergies in his dorm, which he now thinks is a mold allergy. Prior to the mold in his dorm in January, his fridge leaked during fall quarter also adding mold to the room.

He had trouble focusing in class and studying while dealing with the relocation.

Ruiz moved to Sierra Madre Tower 4 as he waited for the mold to be cleaned, a time he called “worrisome.” 

Although he received an email from the university on how to clean up the mold, he wishes there was more communication from the university on what to do with the mold.

Giocomo Ruiz standing outside Sierra Madre Tower 2. Credit: Ashley Spinoglio | Mustang News

“It makes me a little confused that they gave a bunch of preventative stuff but nothing that seems permanent on how to take care of the mold.”

Giocomo Ruiz

30 HVAC filters in campus buildings have ‘potential for upgrade’

For animal science sophomore Maura Darby, who has Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome, a “mold hit” is what happens when she enters a space that has mold in it. Darby was diagnosed with Lyme Disease in middle school, then received a diagnosis for her current mold allergy. At Cal Poly, Darby has left some classrooms feeling fatigued and foggy her freshman year – despite wearing a KN95 mask to protect herself.

Prior to moving to campus, Darby filed a request with the Disability Resource Center to live in the yakʔitʸutʸu dorms instead of with her residential community in the Yosemite Towers. It was easy for Darby to get this accommodation, though worrisome for her learning experience when it came to some of the other buildings on campus.

While Darby says she felt supported by the DRC her freshman year in making accommodations for housing, she said that there is more the university can do to support her and other students sensitive to mold, including more routine testing for mold.

Heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems at Cal Poly contain varying filters, which block different particles depending on their strength, denoted by Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV). The higher the MERV filter rating, the more particles are filtered out.

The standards for MERV filters were created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers who recommend that filters be at least MERV 13, though the agency prefers MERV 14 or better.

MERV 13 filters are also recommended for people with “severe allergies” according to the Cal Poly Facilities Management and Development website.

Mustang News found that 30 filters across campus buildings are denoted to have potential for upgrade to MERV 13. The Engineering East building has 26 filters with “potential for upgrade” from MERV 11 since October 2022.

Cal Poly Manager of Mechanical Trades Mark Sine said some filters have not been upgraded because of funding or the practicality of installing new filters.

“Some of the filter racks are not designed for the new filter,” Sine said. “Some of them are very old style filters that are like a roll type filter and so a filter rack would have to be built and we have project requests in the works to do that but just haven't had the funding to do them.”

Sine said that the facilities department has received the same amount of funding for the past 20 years, meaning that older buildings do not receive more funding. He said this is an issue because older buildings have more maintenance issues. He added that funding is determined by square foot — not by building age.

In 2021 and 2022, Facilities Operations received $17.6 million which was divided into 20 different categories.

The time it takes to replace filters is “all dependent on where they’re at,” Sine said. Some locations take longer to get to and it can take a “couple hours” to change the filters.

For rooms that need a new filter rack, this process takes longer as crews have to go up to where the vent is and change the entire system.

For residence halls, Sine said that the HVAC systems use convection, meaning “it is not supplying outside air.”

“A convector is kind of like a radiator but it’s designed to actually pull old air from the bottom, and as it heats up, the air rises due to convection,” Sine said.

 “If you have filters, you probably have less mold inside,” Cal Poly Environmental Health and Safety Director Korpan said. 

Sine hasn’t seen an issue with mold in filters, but the more a filter is used, the more productive it is.

“As the filters clog up they actually get more efficient, Sine said. “The spaces between the particles get smaller and smaller and so you're actually getting cleaner and cleaner air as the filters [are] getting dirtier and dirtier.”

Korpan said that people feeling sick after being inside sometimes “is because they are not getting enough fresh air” and the “contaminants start to build up."

Some locations on campus with older filters “weren’t able to take the thicker filter” Korpan said. So, bringing in more fresh air is the recommendation.

Additionally, the filters are not the “strategy” for getting rid of molds in buildings on campus, he said. Instead, the filters are used to bring in fresh air from outside.

What to do if you see mold in the residence halls

When residents move into on-campus housing, they are required to complete a room evaluation form on the state of their room to avoid damage costs from the university, within 72 hours.

At the end of the academic year, “all University Housing rooms undergo deep cleaning in the summer,” Lazier said. 

Currently, there are no statewide regulations concerning the exposure to mold, according to the California Department of Public Health. California law does not support regulations for mold, though landlords are required to alert tenants if there is mold.

In the Housing & Dining License Agreement-Terms & Conditions for 2022-23, the university outlines what residents should do if they see maintenance issues — including information about mold on campus.

“[A] licensee may encounter building conditions or materials within or surrounding the physical living environment that may be considered hazardous,” which includes asbestos, lead, mold cleaning chemicals, moist conditions or pesticides, according to the document. 

The resident is also responsible for reporting any “issues regarding policy violations, maintenance, repairs, bug infestations, health conditions” and more.

Mold grows with moisture, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Large infestations of mold can also be seen or smelled.

Residents that notice mold are also suggested to report to their RA and submit a service request if there is condensation on the window and walls or if the roof, window or door leaks, according to University Housing.

University Housing suggests that people submit service requests earlier in the day, so that the request “may be directed to the appropriate channel.” Once University Maintenance receives a mold report, they clean up the mold, then return to the location two weeks later to check if the mold is still there.

This story comes from The Hill, a team of data analysts and reporters focused on data-driven and investigative stories at Mustang News. Click here to read more stories from The Hill.