There is an increasing level of interest in non-tuberculous mycobacteria (NTM) due to the increasing reported rates of diseases caused by them. Although it is well known that NTM are widely distributed in the environment it is necessary to identify its reservoirs to prevent possible infections. In this study, we aimed to investigate the occurrence and levels of NTM in cooling towers to provide evidences for considering these settings as possible sources of respiratory infections. In the current study, we detected and quantified the presence of NTM by means of a rapid method in water samples taken from 53 cooling towers of an urban area (Barcelona, Spain). A genus-specific quantitative PCR (Q-PCR) assay with a quantification limit (QL) of 500 cells l-1 was used. 56% (30) of samples were positive with a concentration range from 4.6 × 103 to 1.79 × 106 cells l-1. In some cases (9/30), samples were positive but with levels below the QL. The colonization rate confirmed that cooling towers could be considered as a potential reservoir for NTM. This study also evaluated Q-PCR as a useful method to detect and quantify NTM in samples coming from environmental sources. © 2010 Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.