Josh Sommer, mold-prevention advocate

August 1, 2006
Josh Sommer

Josh Sommer. Jon Gardiner

When Josh Sommer '09 and his mother began suffering from strange symptoms in the fall of 2001, they initially thought it was stress. Plagued by headaches, nosebleeds, and fatigue, they also had difficulty remembering and articulating their thoughts. Josh dropped soccer because of acute asthma that would often leave him gasping for breath on the field.

Eventually the cause of their symptoms was traced back to a basement remodeling project. "A contractor started demolishing a wall where a water heater had leaked," Josh Sommer recalls. "The wall was just filled with mold." The contractor, untrained in proper mold-remediation techniques, demolished the wall, dispersing the black substance into the air. For the next nine months, their immune systems were primed by toxic mold particles floating throughout their house.

Sommer, a native of Greensboro, lost his home and spent the next few months jumping from apartments to hotels to relatives' homes. His mother, Simone Sommer, a single parent with her own medical practice, was forced to stop work, leaving them without a steady source of income. The two endured constant medical challenges over the next few years. His mother still "suffers from chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, and all kinds of immune dysfunction," he says. "It was just a nightmare."

Since that traumatic period, Sommer has striven to educate himself and others about the dangers of household mold. He has become a passionate activist, policymaker, and researcher. "Nothing really excites me like doing this kind of stuff," he says. "I see myself tackling the scientific research, the epidemiology, and the public policy of household mold."

As a freshman in high school, Sommer was asked by Congressman John Conyers of Michigan to speak at a press conference introducing HR 1268, the U.S. Toxic Mold Safety and Protection Act (reintroduced as HR 1269 in the 109th Congress). "At first, this was totally thrown in my lap. I had no idea what I was doing and was just going with the flow," he recalls. However, when the bill ran into some trouble, Josh and his mother realized that they had to step up.

"At that point I started spending a lot of time researching. We went up and met with Congressman Conyers and actually traveled with him to some conferences. For about six months to a year, my mom and

I were the only ones keeping this bill alive."

Over the next few years, he worked closely with several congressmen to raise public awareness of the dangers of mold and spoke at congressional briefings and press conferences on health and public safety.

Sommer finds the biggest obstacle to implementing significant policy changes to be a dearth of research. He is working with Claudia Gunsch and Andrei Khylstov, assistant professors of civil engineering, to develop a toxin-detecting device that could help builders and public officials ensure that buildings stay mold-free. "Without the research component, everything else just stalls," he says.

Sommer's expertise overlaps with his work on Duke's newest major engineering venture, the Smart House, a live-in research laboratory designed to contribute to "the innovation and demonstration of future residential building technology." He leads the indoor environmental air-quality team, developing tools to keep the house's ventilation systems free of his nemeses--dangerous toxins. When the semester ended, Sommer--an intended double-major in civil engineering and public policy--was planning to set up epidemiological studies in Greenville, North Carolina, which has been suffering from mold problems ever since it was hit by Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

The title of national mold spokesperson is less than glamorous--raising eyebrows rather than dropping jaws.

"I definitely get teased about it," he says, "but it's always in a good-hearted manner."