Are molds and mildew the next environmental quagmires facing commercial property owners? A slew of lawsuits and an emphasis on indoor air quality by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Healthy Homes Initiative suggest that the answer is "yes."

Just listen to one New York attorney describe an apartment property against which he filed more than 140 lawsuits on behalf of building residents. "It's like our own Three Mile Island in the middle of Manhattan," he says. Together the suits are seeking more than $8 billion in damages for residents who claim that mold contamination in their apartment homes is making them sick.

While the normal incidence of asthma in the general population is 3.8%, according to public health officials, 70% of the residents in this property allegedly suffer from the condition. And at least two residents have died from complications attributed to mold exposure.

The residents say the 28-year old building is plagued with water leaks and those leaks have caused the toxic outbreak. The apartment owner has spent millions to take care of the problem molds, yet recent visitors claim that walls and ceilings appeared moldy and smelled of mildew.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated example. In Delaware, a jury recently awarded $780,000 in damages to an apartment resident who claimed that the moisture-damaged ceiling in her bathroom exposed her to mold that exacerbated her already severe asthma and caused neurological impairment.

Three families in Alameda County, Calif., settled a case against their homeowners' association for $545,000 after leaky pipes enabled toxic mold to grow in the crawl spaces of their condo units. The plaintiffs reported depression, vomiting, respiratory tract infections and other symptoms.

Another California family collected a $525,000 settlement from their apartment owner and manager after claiming that the owner and manager knowingly rented an apartment in which exposure to fungi caused severe allergies. The suit also alleged that the management ignored their complaints of musty odors and mold growth, and failed to tell them of prior mold complaints in the 700-unit building.

The source of our discontent Molds, also known as fungi, are found throughout the environment. They can be found virtually anywhere moisture is present. These microorganisms can lie dormant as spores for years, until just the right conditions of moisture and nutrients become available. Then they flourish.

Most property owners realize that a puddle of standing water from a leak requires immediate action. But few apply the same sense of urgency to an improperly cycling HVAC. Yet both of these situations result in a high relative humidity, which can trigger the mold growth in materials such as wallboard, carpets, ceiling tiles, books and papers, plywood, wooden studs and wooden furnishings. Mold growth will usually continue unabated until the moisture and/or nutrient sources are removed.

Health problems can occur when a person touches, inhales or ingests molds and the toxins they produce. People with chronic respiratory diseases, such as asthma, and people with allergies are the most likely to experience a reaction to mold and mold toxins. The most common symptoms of mold exposure are hay fever-like allergy symptoms and/or flu-like symptoms. Individuals with immune system disorders may actually become infected with the mold organisms.

What's an owner/manager to do? The potential for liability in this area is clearly growing. Yet most commercial real estate managers do not even realize that they might have a ticking time bomb on their properties. Property owners should have their service technicians trained to recognize mold infestation so they can identify these potential problems during routine repair activities.

Some moldy conditions are relatively easy to handle. If the affected surface area is of a manageable size, it can be scrubbed with a 10% solution of household bleach. If mold is on a larger surface, in the cavity wall or within the HVAC system, more intensive interventions are required, and an owner should contact an environmental specialist.

Property owners can obtain helpful publications on indoor air quality by calling (800) 438-4318. There are also publications available online, including "Building Air Quality: A Guide for Building Owners and Facility Managers" (www.epa.gov/iaq/base/baqtoc.html) and "The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality" (www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidest.html). The New York City Department of Health has valuable mold-fighting information that can be found at www.ci.nyc.ny.us/html/doh/html/epi/moldrpt1.html. The American Industrial Hygienists Association also retains a registry of professionals trained to evaluate indoor air quality. This information is arranged by state and is available at aiha.org/journal/consult.html.