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Abandoned telephone cables may be poisoning America's soil and waterways

Abandoned telephone cables, a legacy of tech giants such as Verizon and AT&T, are potentially leaching toxic lead into American soil and waterways, according to a comprehensive report by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). 

Highlighting an alarming issue that is hidden in plain sight, the report calls attention to the environmental hazards linked to technological advancements, and how they continue to pose a threat even when their lifetimes have ended.

Thousands of discarded telephone cables

The WSJ’s investigation found thousands of these discarded telephone cables throughout the United States, their toxic content infiltrating major rivers such as the Mississippi in Louisiana, the Detroit in Michigan, the Willamette in Oregon, and the Passaic in New Jersey.

The presence of lead from these remnants of telecommunication history is now disturbingly evident in various settings – from children’s playgrounds to backyard bayous.

Documents reviewed by WSJ, and interviews conducted with former employees, reveal that companies were acutely aware that the lead in the cables not only threatened the health of their workers, but also risked poisoning the surrounding environment over time. In the face of this grave risk, however, they appear to have made no significant moves to mitigate the health dangers posed.

The study, shockingly, has not been addressed by environmental regulators yet. Linda Birnbaum is a former EPA official and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She told WSJ that the findings “suggest there is a significant problem from these buried lead cables everywhere.”

According to Birnbaum, what’s even more troubling is that “it’s going to be everywhere and you’re not even going to know where it is in a lot of places.”

Dangers of lead exposure

The dangers of lead exposure have been well-documented. This highly toxic metal has been linked to various health issues, including reproductive difficulties, and damage to the brain, kidneys, and liver. Children, due to their developing brains, are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause developmental problems ranging from behavioral disorders to learning disabilities.

Despite efforts by US regulators and other government bodies to reduce lead’s environmental prevalence, exposure remains alarmingly widespread, particularly among young children. According to a Quest Diagnostics study from 2021, half of all American children under six have detectable levels of lead in their blood.

Jack Caravanos, an environmental public-health professor at New York University who assisted with the WSJ report, commented on this worrying statistic. “A new, uncontrolled source of lead like old telephone cables may partly explain” this prevalence of lead in children, said Caravanos. “We never knew about it so we never acted on it, unlike lead in paint and pipes.”

Alarming discoveries

In a journey that led them through a sprawling network of more than 1,750 underwater lead-covered cables and around 250 aerial lead-covered cables, the WSJ reporters made a startling discovery. Many of these cables were found to be situated close to schools and bus stops, and were laid by American Telephone & Telegraph – AT&T’s predecessor – from the late 1800s through to the 1960s.

Lead levels in the environment around these cables were found to be staggering. A sample taken from California’s Lake Tahoe exceeded the EPA limit for drinking water by over 2,533 times, posing a risk not just to swimmers but also to marine life. Water from New Iberia, Louisiana’s Bayou Teche showed 7.4 lead parts per billion, a level that dangerously exceeds EPA guidelines. In both sites, eroding underwater cables were identified as the culprits.

Conflicting reports about telephone cables

Telecommunications companies, however, have contested the findings of the report. USTelecom, an industry group representing US phone companies, stated that there is no evidence to suggest that these legacy cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or pose a public health issue. 

Verizon stated that it took the concerns about lead-sheathed cables “very seriously,” acknowledging the presence of many such cables in its network, which are still in use for providing critical voice and data services. AT&T, in contrast, was more confrontational, arguing that the report’s findings contradict the consensus of independent experts and their own testing.

However, a 2010 AT&T internal document reviewed by the WSJ revealed a different narrative. The document highlighted a concern about the exposure of workers removing the underground cables and acknowledged that some older metropolitan areas may still have over 50 percent lead cable.

The investigative report raises deep concerns about the lingering harm caused by discarded technological infrastructure. It serves as a sobering reminder of the unaddressed environmental problems we face and the consequences of neglecting them. 

Jack Caravanos points out that even seemingly small actions, such as getting “a little dirt on your fingers to put into your mouth and ingest,” can lead to dangerous lead exposure levels. 


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