When Aleta Mack, a former executive assistant to Georgetown University Police Department Chief Jay Gruber, started experiencing breathing difficulties and headaches while in Village C West in August 2014, Mack filed an external complaint for a health hazard evaluation while requesting accommodation from the university.
Mack was not able to come to an agreement with the university on her work and was ultimately put on suspension and terminated from the university’s employment March 5, 2015.
Two years later, Mack is now in litigation against Georgetown on the grounds that the university failed to properly accommodate her when she was experiencing medical issues caused by mold.
Mack’s lawsuit is one in a series of complaints from students and faculty related to mold at Georgetown. Mack’s case specifically refers to whether the university is found to have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, a law guaranteeing equal employment opportunities and other rights for disabled people in the United States.
Some students were forced to temporarily move out of housing this fall after discovering mold in their room.
A Case Unresolved
In the lawsuit filed May 2015, Mack said the university violated the ADA by failing to accommodate her respiratory issues stemming from mold exposure.
On Aug. 4, 2014, Mack filed her first complaint with the university after she suspected that her medical issues were caused by the mold. In response, the university conducted remediation work and air sampling Aug. 21, 2014 to demonstrate that there was no more harmful mold left.
However, Mack and other GUPD employees whose names cannot be disclosed were not satisfied and filed an external complaint Aug. 27, 2014 with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
NIOSH epidemiologist Sandra White conducted a health hazard evaluation in response to the complaints and sent a close-out letter, a summary of NIOSH’s findings, to the university in October 2014.
White wrote in the letter that air sample methods used by the university’s contractor were ineffective at precisely analyzing mold levels in the air. White added that the university needed to further clean the mold damage and add dehumidifiers in the office where the mold developed.
In an interview with The Hoya, White said she spoke to several members of the facilities and environmental safety offices during the health hazard evaluation. White confirmed that there were concerns that the university had improperly addressed issues stemming from mold, including not repairing the mold-damaged drywall and only cleaning it with disinfectant.
The employees all reported headaches that abated within an hour of leaving the affected area, according to the letter.
The university reported to White that they had followed through on her recommendations, including cleaning mold damage and installing dehumidifiers. The letter is a non-binding set of recommendations.
However, problems persisted as Mack continued to experience symptoms related to mold.
“She inadvertently left a cup of tea on her desk when she left work due to sudden illness on 11/10/14. The photo showed the cup of tea was still there with several groups of colored matter floating in the fluid, consistent with presence of mold,” a Nov. 19, 2014 letter from Mack’s allergist, Sheryl Lucas, reads.
Mack and the university continued to negotiate terms of her employment and workplace accommodation in 2015. Court documents show the university offered Mack a new job position, but Mack failed to respond to the offer and the university terminated her employment on March 5, 2015. Mack claims she was fired in retaliation for her original complaints of mold.
Outside of Court
Issues of mold at Georgetown extend beyond Mack’s lawsuit and into the dormitories of undergraduate students.
Village A, Village C West and Village C East have the highest frequency of reported mold issues on campus. Last year, 54 cases of mold were reported to Facilities and Management from Village A, while 50 cases of mold were reported from Village C last year, according to data provided to The Hoya by Facilities and Management.
The amount of mold work requests is the highest from the late summer to early fall in August and September, when humidity is high. Around half of the mold work requests actually turn out to be mold; the other half of cases is surface dirt and dust.
Executive Director for Residential Services Patrick Killilee wrote in an email to The Hoya that if mold remediation work is extensive and disruptive, students would be relocated to temporary housing provided by the university.
Vice President of Facilities and Management Robin Morey said when a complaint about mold is received, trained facilities workers are sent to clean up the mold damage. For more serious cases, outside technicians are called to remove the mold growths.
Morey said mold tends to either involve carpets with water damage from rain, a leaky air conditioning unit or improper sanitation of living quarters and bathrooms — a preventable cause. Mold is caused by a combination of high levels of humidity and warm temperatures allowing fungi spores to germinate.
“Many of such complaints are minor conditions which can be addressed with appropriate cleaning. Regular cleaning of such areas would prevent the minor mold growth from occurring,” Morey wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The Health Effects of Mold
While mold does not usually cause people in affected areas to develop new medical conditions, it can exacerbate the symptoms of those already suffering from respiratory conditions, such as allergies or asthma, according to Dori Germolec, a toxicology researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
“The biggest challenges tend to be with people with preexisting respiratory conditions. So individuals that have asthma or allergies may be more sensitive to the effects of mold and it can exacerbate their asthma symptoms,” Germolec said.
According to Germolec, mold can be found almost everywhere and is generally not dangerous.
“Mold is really everywhere. It is impossible to avoid. We are all exposed to it all the time. In normal concentrations it’s not harmful,” Germolec said.
But when someone has pre-existing respiratory conditions, the effects can be detrimental.
“About 15 minutes after arriving at work she had onset of difficulty breathing with postnasal drainage, itchy throat, chest tightness, feeling of pressure and pain in the crown and occipital areas of the head and burning sensation in the eyes,” the November 2014 letter from Mack’s allergist wrote.
The lawsuit is still in litigation and no court date has been set. The university’s legal counsel has attempted to have the case dismissed.