An in-depth investigation conducted by the Wall Street Journal has uncovered a potential source of soil contamination in the form of over 2,000 lead-covered cables left behind by telecommunication companies. Despite efforts to eliminate lead-based paint and pipes from the environment, these abandoned cables, belonging to companies like Verizon and AT&T, continue to pose a threat to unsuspecting Americans.
The Journal’s investigation involved testing samples from approximately 130 underwater cable sites. The results revealed the presence of lead in the soil of various rivers across the country, including the Passaic River in New Jersey, the Detroit River in Michigan, the Willamette River in Oregon, and the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Shockingly, more than 48 locations were found to have soil contamination beyond the levels deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
These legacy lead-covered telecom cables were originally a part of the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure but began to be phased out in the 1950s with the development of a new type of sheathing, as stated by a spokesperson from USTelecom.
One of the major concerns highlighted by the investigation is the potential health risk to children. The EPA’s safety standard for lead levels in soil where children play is 400 parts per million. However, the Journal’s investigation found sediment in a popular Louisiana fishing spot, frequently visited by local children, to contain 14.5 times the safe level in June 2022.
A study published in 2021 by JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal, revealed that half of young children in the US have high levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure can lead to neurodevelopmental issues and damage to the brain and nervous system in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Moreover, the Journal’s investigation found that over 100 schools have lead cables running overhead, and more than 1,000 schools and childcare centers are within half a mile of underwater lead cables, potentially exposing children and staff to the harmful effects of lead.
Verizon did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment, while AT&T directed questions to USTelecom, a broadband association. However, the latter provided a written statement to the Journal emphasizing their commitment to the safety and well-being of individuals and communities. AT&T also mentioned that the investigation’s findings contradict scientific consensus and their own testing.
USTelecom further disputed the claims made by the Journal, stating that they are unable to confirm the reported information as they do not have access to all the underlying data and methodology. They also stated that they have not seen any evidence, nor have regulators identified, that legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or a public health issue.
Overall, the Journal’s investigation has shed light on the potential hazards posed by abandoned lead-covered cables, highlighting the need for further action to address and mitigate the risks associated with soil contamination and lead exposure.