At the end of September, some Ford Hall residents became worried when they believed they found mold in their dorm rooms.
Lilli Smith, freshman in animal sciences and industry, lives in the hall and said an illness was the first sign there might be an issue.
“It essentially started with just everyone being like, ‘Wow, we’re all really sick all of a sudden. This is really weird. I wonder what’s going on?'” Smith said. “And so we were all kind of speculating like maybe mold could come into play with it.”
Smith was one of the first people to send a work order after she believed she found mold in her shower vent. She also sent the picture of the vent to a group chat that included residents of Ford Hall.
She said some residents took matters into their own hands to test their rooms for mold.
“A couple girls went out and bought those mold testing kits,” Smith said. “Normally, you have to swab something and swab it on the kit, but those girls decided just to leave it out in the air and see what it can collect, and … it collected a lot, and that was sent to the Ford group chat, as well.”
Smith said after she filed the work report, Ford Hall’s maintenance crew responded quickly. The crew went to every room looking for mold and cleaned out air conditioning units, shower vents and the Synexis machines.
Derek Jackson, director of Housing and Dining Services, said Ford Hall presents unique challenges compared to other dorm halls.
“If you think about Ford Hall, it’s all private bathrooms, private showers, so it has a lot of opportunity for moisture,” Jackson said. “Moisture is our number one culprit when it comes to mold.”
Because there is so much moisture in the air, any allowed amount of water build-up leads to mold issues.
“Part of this is that mold lives in the air, and it’s always here, but it’s not generally in a large enough concentration,” Jackson said. “It’s when you get a moisture source that is uncontrolled, like a bathroom or something that’s dripping, like a dripping pipe.”
He said students need to inform maintenance quickly if there are issues, such as a leaking pipe, to resolve the issue.
Jackson said once the maintenance team received reports of mold in September, they investigated. Generally, the team checks the air filtration system every three months, but they began checking them about three weeks early because of the student reports.
“We got in the building and did our look-around and found very little mold,” Jackson said. “When we did find it, it was usually in the shower environments in very small spots — less than a dime spot.”
This is not the first time the mold issue has come up in Ford Hall. In 2018, more than a dozen rooms had mold in them.
While Ford Hall had mold problems in 2018, Jackson said they have made many improvements since then. A significant upgrade is a new air filtration system from Synexis in each dorm room. He said K-State tested the Synexis machines before purchasing them.
“We did studies before we bought the system four years ago where we did samples in rooms,” Jackson said. “We watched the number of living organisms drop over a thirty-day time period. Some species are harder to kill than others, but we were seeing between a 75 and 90 percent kill rate of the spectrum of living organisms.”
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The university installed the machines in Ford Hall dorm rooms during the fall 2020 semester. Jackson said the university also installed them across campus, including the Student Union, the Rec Complex and classrooms.
“Last year, we installed those Synexis machines, and I had zero mold calls last year. But also when we installed them, we were just after the fall semester start — we told the students what they were doing,” Jackson said. “Obviously, our job was to kill [COVID-19], and we did a great job at killing COVID.”
While Jackson said the machines worked this past year, a new issue arose this year, allowing mold to grow.
“This year, we were seeing probably about 50 percent of the machines not functioning – not on,” Jackson said. “Students can unplug them and turn the power off.”
Jackson said the Synexis machines make a humming noise similar to a fan depending on its speed.
He also said there is a slight design issue he has addressed with Synexis: the fan button is on top and easy to see. The power switch, however, is located underneath the machine and is difficult to see. Therefore, the fan switch can be on, but the machine might not run because the power switch is off.
Jackson said educating students on how the Synexis machines run and explaining their purpose is his department’s responsibility. While there were some written instructions in the rooms to explain the machines, Jackson said his department did not speak with students about them.
“Last year, I think we did a decent job of telling students the story,” Jackson said. “This fall, I think we assumed students would understand what these Synexis machines were doing and why they were doing it. We had a little bit of marketing material with them, but for the most part, we didn’t tell the story of why we have them in the same fashion.”
He also said face-to-face communication between students and his department would help prevent future outbreaks in the dorms.
“When you’re in a room with a student or a group of students, and you tell them what we’re doing, they have a better connection to that than if they just arrive in a place and they have some written stuff,” Jackson said.
This communication is something Smith said she hopes will take place in the future. Before moving into Ford Hall, she only heard stories about the dorms from other students.
“I’ve heard … stories because my brother went to K-State and graduated, and he was just like, ‘Ope, you’re going to get sick,'” Smith said. “He was like, ‘Living in the dorm, you’re probably going to be sick a lot.'”
With these stories circulating among students, Smith said she thinks the university is more concerned about saving face.
“I think that they’re doing a pretty good amount considering, but I also think that they’re just kind of like, ‘OK, let’s minimize the scandal,’ almost around it rather than the concern for … students’ health and wellbeing,” Smith said.
However, Smith said she appreciates the work the maintenance team does around Ford Hall.
“I am glad they had maintenance people come, and they also checked around for any visible mold,” Smith said. “So, I’m glad they’re doing something, but I don’t know what else they could potentially do other than what they’ve done.”
Jackson said having a maintenance team on duty at all times should provide comfort for students living in Ford Hall.
“My kids have lived in residence halls, and I would trust them,” Jackson said. “What I trust is that our maintenance people are here every day, seven days a week, 24 hours a day. When there’s a maintenance issue, we’ll be there.”
K-State’s Housing and Dining Services houses dorm maintenance issue reports on its website.