Indoor air pollution can pose serious health problems for your employees -- and serious legal problems for you

Pick up a newspaper or magazine, and you're likely to read about yet another problem associated with environmental hazards. And with increasing frequency, these hazards are being found inside commercial buildings. In Washington, D.C., the Environmental Protection Agency itself had to abandon newly refurbished office space, losing several hundred thousand dollars it had invested.

Concentrations of harmful pollutants tend to be two to five times higher inside than outside -- even if you're in a highly industrialized area. The EPA has identified close to a thousand indoor pollutants, about 30 of which are carcinogens.

To be sure, your legal responsibilities as an employer in this area have yet to be fully defined. For instance, it's not clear whether you could be held responsible years from now if an employee develops asbestosis, contracted at an office location that you chose. It is possible that an employee who gets carbon monoxide poisoning could sue, claiming that you as a building owner are strictly liable for the dangerous environment you created. As our laws relating to long-term occupational disease and relations in the workplace change, employers may face liability where they never did before.

Legal questions aside, however, you want to provide a healthy workplace for your employees. So if you're planning to buy or lease space in the near future, here is a quick guide to the most common sources of indoor pollutants, and what you can do about them.

* Asbestos: commonly used as fire-retardant insulation in many commercial buildings up until the early 1970s. Dangerous when loose and crumbling; seldom a hazard if tightly bonded to other materials. In the latter case destruction or removal itself may release large amounts of asbestos fibers. Investigate for the presence of asbestos in any facility you plan to buy or lease. Determine whether local law or prudent practice dictates its removal. Preferably, limit liability by having the previous owner or your landlord remove asbestos before you occupy the building.

* Radon: a colorless, odorless, naturally occurring radioactive gas found in soil, building materials such as brick and stone, and sometimes in the water from your tap. High concentrations can cause lung cancer. Radon levels can be high in individual buildings even though there may be no general problem in the area. Inexpensive tests for radon are commonly available. Check with your regional environmental-health agency for names of specialists. Reducing radon levels can be expensive. Decreasing the concentration of radon reduces risks, so opening your windows may be the only remedy you need.

* Formaldehyde: found in many manufactured products, such as particleboard, plywood, floor coverings, furniture, and fabrics, this chemical can affect human health at low concentrations. It's a suspected carcinogen. Eliminating all products that contain formaldehyde from your work environment may not be possible. Look to increased air flow and air filters as a more practical solution.

Urea formaldehyde foam insulation is an inexpensive insulation that was favored in light residential construction during the 1970s. Now believed to be carcinogenic, it's banned in a number of states and is usually too costly to remove.

* Combustion by-products: grit, grime, dust, and gas from your water heater, furnace, air conditioner, or other machinery. These may be serious pollutants. A gradual buildup of carbon monoxide in the blood can cause decreased stamina and coordination over time. Especially at risk are employees who are pregnant or have respiratory or heart ailments. Where possible, eliminate sources of combustion that pollute. Make sure any other combustion is vented properly, and increase the flow of fresh air to work spaces.

* Fungi and bacteria: bred in dark, damp, and dusty conduits that channel air throughout office buildings. These bacteria and fungi can be harmful -- resulting, for example, in the potentially fatal Legionnaires' disease. Investigate your landlord's maintenance procedures, and express your concern. This is likely to spur improvements in an area that's often neglected.

Finally, inadequate air flow itself can cause substantial health problems. Before moving into a new building, it's a good idea to be sure your landlord's ventilation and air-conditioning specifications conform to standards recommended by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating & Air-Conditioning Engineers. And do some sleuthing on your own. Where is the building's air intake? If it's next to a parking lot or a loading dock, that's likely to mean tainted air. If it's blocked off or covered with dust and grime, that's another bad sign.

As you can see, environmental considerations should become a routine part of any decision to buy or lease a facility. When you know what to look for, you can protect yourself and your employees from situations that jeopardize health. In the process, you'll minimize the potential for costly liabilities.

Marisa Manley is an attorney in New York City.


Some things to check before buying new quarters

At the minimum, you should investigate the following:

* Site history. Check for prior uses -- gas station, shoe factory, paint factory, and so on, which could leave you with an expensive cleanup problem.

* Current problems. Ask the seller for written certification that the site is not now contaminated, and a statement holding you blameless for losses and liabilities should a problem be found.

* Neighbors. Check possible sources of pollution within a reasonable distance of your site. See if your local environmental agency has any concerns about the area.

And before you take title to a property, insist that the current owner haul away any refuse, so you don't take on the additional risks associated with transportation and disposal of hazardous waste.