Some students living on campus had their worst fears confirmed on Tuesday after first-year University of Wisconsin-Madison student Elise Poos posted a viral TikTok of mold growth on a do-it-yourself mold test kit she placed in her Sellery Residence Hall dorm room.
To the tune of “Material Girl,” Poos showed the mold growth in a petri dish while explaining that she has been sick since September.
The video has over 13,000 likes and 120,500 views as of Thursday afternoon. On Wednesday, the TikTok was also posted on Barstool Sports’ UW-Madison affiliate Wisco Chicks, receiving increased attention from their nearly 21,000 followers.
“The sickness I’m experiencing is not the cold that college students warn about on TikTok,” Poos told The Daily Cardinal. “It’s not the frat flu; the sickness is never-ending.”
Poos’ symptoms include congestion, eye irritation, sneezing, a sore throat and coughing. She purchased an eight-dollar mold test from Amazon over the Thanksgiving holiday after doing some research about her symptoms and their overlap with potential mold exposure.
“I decided to get the mold test because I wasn’t getting any answers regarding the sickness I was experiencing,” Poos said.
After Poos followed the instructions on the kit and waited the specified amount of time, mold emerged on the petri dish.
Although not shown in the TikTok, she said that the mold continued to grow.
Concerns with Sellery Residence Hall, its ongoing construction and mold specifically have been expressed by residents for months. In an interview with The Daily Cardinal last September, Sellery resident Scarlett Marruffo expressed concerns about fellow residents' breathing problems as a result of alleged black mold. At the time, the university determined that the mold growth in the residence hall was “not uncommon.”
“This fall, we evaluated Sellery with UW Environmental Health and Safety, and there was no widespread evidence of concern regarding mold, but we address every reported concern and treat rooms as needed if any surface mold is found,” UW Housing Director of Marketing and Communications Brendon Dybdahl stated.
In September, UW Housing communicated to Sellery residents that “minor” mold growth had been identified in some window air conditioners and encouraged residents to submit maintenance requests if they had any concerns or opt to have Housing remove the unit, Dybdahl said.
“Sellery is notorious for being an old, busted building,” Poos said. “So most things I see that make me suspicious, I just glance over.”
However, while visiting home for one night in September, Poos’ father woke her up because her cough was so severe. Her father, a respiratory therapist, ultimately sent her back to school with an inhaler and additional cough medicine.
Poos has also sought out medical attention, but a doctor was unable to determine the precise cause for her symptoms.
“There hasn’t been a period of time since September where I felt 100% healthy,” said Poos.
Dybdahl said that the department is aware of the TikTok and in contact with Poos.
Referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance, Dybdahl emphasized that the organization states that individuals cannot rely on mold sampling to understand one’s health risk.
“It should be noted that environmental mold is present in some form in almost every indoor environment,” Dybdahl said, underscoring that at-home mold test kits, like the one utilized by Poors’ are “designed” to grow mold and not a good indicator of environmental safety.
On Wednesday, Dec. 8, the Sellery Residence Life Coordinator emailed Poos about her TikTok, suggesting that she could request maintenance to take a look at her room and air conditioner.
“I’m happy they reached out and they didn’t stay silent,” Poos said, noting that she did submit a maintenance request after receiving the email.
Ultimately, though, Poos remains concerned about what UW Housing maintenance teams’ will actually do.
“I’ve heard from so many people that they’ve had their room’s checked for mold and the maintenance crew just brushed over their concern,” Poos said.
Commenters on TikTok also suggested that Poos submit the petri dish to a lab to get tested.
“I simply do not have the money to send my petri dish to a lab,” Poos said. “So I’ll have the maintenance men of Sellery do their job.”
Poos recalled a friend posting a Snapchat of a falling ceiling tile in Sellery with a black substance covering it in September. Although she was unsure whether it was confirmed to be mold, it was an immediate point of concern.
Additionally, Poos mentioned that dated features of the building, broken elevators, construction and cockroaches have marked her Sellery experience but that she is ultimately happy with the residence hall given the friends she has made.
“We all bond over our struggles,” Poos said about fellow Sellery residents. “I found community within my floor.”
Commenters on the viral TikTok described their experiences living in Sellery as well.
“I lived in dirty sell two years ago and we had mold then too,” said user ih8hellenkeller. “It’s part of the experience.”
User abbysmith813 also said that they were sick “the ENTIRE year,” while living in Sellery their freshman year at UW-Madison.
“Sellery is a running joke among UW students,” Poos emphasized. “But it’s obviously serious if my sickness is from real mold.”
“The Sellery jokes are funny, but this sickness is not,” Poos concluded.
Editor's note: This story was updated at 11:24 a.m. on Dec. 10, 2021 to include that the Sellery Residence Hall construction project is currently ongoing.
Sophia Vento is the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as the college news editor. She has covered breaking campus, city, state and sports news, and written in-depth stories about health, culture and education. Any newsroom would be lucky to have Sophia on staff. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiasvento.