Maria Valdez worried she had COVID-19 when she first started coughing. With a negative result, she thought it was a common cold.
But two weeks ago, the 18-year-old UF microbiology freshman found black mold in her AC unit.
Multiple students in Rawlings Hall, including Valdez, have complained about cold-like symptoms over the past month. She herself experienced coughing, clogged sinuses and a sore throat, and took a month to recover.
Rawlings Hall is a traditional on-campus dorm that opened in 1958. Renovations in the late 1980s included window-unit air conditioners, which are different from central AC units used by most modern dorms.
On Valdez’s floor, some of the older window units started growing mold, creating poor air quality and ultimately causing sickness, she said. Even small-scale exposure had results; Valdez’s friend visited for a few hours and said he left feeling sick.
“I thought I had COVID but no one else around me was getting sick,” Nduka Mbadugha, an 18-year-old UF finance freshman, said.
Mbadugha, who has cold-induced asthma, felt weak and had trouble breathing while playing basketball days later. He believes Rawlings’ poor air quality is to blame.
RAs instruct students who live in dorms to set their AC units permanently at the coldest setting, otherwise mold creeps in. It is not just a Rawlings problem — almost every residence hall has this rule, Juliana Talamo, a 23-year-old UF psychology junior, said.
Talamo experienced the same mold problems in 2019 when she lived in Mallory Hall. After turning her AC warmer than the coldest setting, her room started growing mold everywhere from plastic containers to her shoes.
“[My shoes] grew brown spots on them, “and I remember I would try to clean them but it wouldn’t come off because it [was] inside the shoe,” Talamo said.
Talamo bought a dehumidifier to remedy the issue and soon realized that humidity levels were at 68%, which is above the Environmental Protection Agencies’ recommended range. Her dehumidifier collected so much water that she had to empty it twice a day.
Now living in an off-campus apartment, Talamo noticed improved humidity levels, and empties her dehumidifier a couple of times per week.
Sara Tanner, UF’s director of communications for the Division of Student Life, described the issue as statewide, common for areas with rain, humidity and high temperatures. She said students are partially responsible for keeping their rooms mold-free.
“Protecting against mold is a shared responsibility,” Tanner said. “To maintain ideal function of our systems, setting the AC on high allows for the compressor to run longer and remove more humidity.”
Tanner also said dorm residents should keep windows closed and latched to help the AC stay consistent, even during changes in weather. Any issues should be reported to maintenance staff and normally are addressed before the end of the next day.
When Valdez reported her case to maintenance, they replaced her AC unit within the hour. Even after it was replaced, she spent around $100 on a dehumidifier.
Even students who did not directly experience mold had concerns. Avery Flint, an 18-year-old UF animal science freshman, dreaded telling her parents about the situation.
“When I first told my parents about it, they were worried because obviously you can get sick if there is mold, but I mean we keep it cold to try and prevent that,” Flint said.
Mold, though seemingly pervasive, is not the only issue students have with Rawlings. What residents sometimes refer to as the ‘horror bathroom’ went viral on TikTok after Tabi Higgins, an 18-year-old UF digital television and film production freshman, posted the TikTok video.
In the TikTok, the bathroom is covered in dirt and rust. A hole in the wall sits above a corroded bathtub, complete with a rusted sink.
“My first instinct was to take pictures inside the bathroom,” Higgins said. “I was mostly surprised that it was left unlocked. Apparently, that was an accident though, because after my TikTok gained attention, they locked the bathroom.”
The bathroom remains inaccessible, behind a locked door on the second floor of the girls’ communal bathroom in Rawlings Hall.
According to Tanner, rooms like the Rawlings bathroom are designated offline spaces, since redesigned to accommodate new plumbing.
Higgins, like most other Rawlings residents, has mold growing in her windows from the constant water dripping out of the window AC unit.
“It’s kinda hard to miss — there’s just green stuff everywhere,” Higgins said. “I think it does affect the air quality and because of that I bought an air purifier.”
To resolve any issues, Tanner says residents should alert maintenance as soon as possible.
“UF Housing has a robust and expert maintenance and facilities team as well as a service request program,” Tanner said.
For any residence hall room or common area that needs service, students can submit an iService request for laundry, pest control, building services, maintenance or furniture issues. Residents can also request emergency maintenance through the form.
Contact Max Taylor at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MTaylor_Journ.
Max is a first year journalism major. In the past, she worked as the Editor-in-Chief of her high school's yearbook, and she is now a News Desk Assistant for The Alligator. When she isn't reporting, Max enjoys reading and rock music.