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Toxic Lead-Clad Telecom Cables: Are AT&T, Verizon Liable for Potential Network Cleanup, Alleged Health Risks?

July 14, 2023 by Joe Panettieri

Legacy network cables covered in toxic lead may cause health risks to U.S. consumers and workers, a Wall Street Journal report alleges, and removing such cables from the environment could cost nearly $60 billion, a follow-up report claimed.

Philip Cusick, managing director, JPMorgan

The alleged health risks involve roughly 2,000 lead-covered cables from the old Bell System's regional telephone network, the report said. The Bell System dominated the telephone services industry in North America from 1877 until its antitrust breakup in 1983, Wikipedia notes. Some of those legacy, lead-covered telecom cables continue to provide critical voice and data services, including access to 911 and other alarms, to customers nationwide, the Journal's report noted.

Telecom giants such as AT&T and Verizon said the lead does not pose health risks. However, the metal has tainted the soil in Louisiana, New York and New Jersey, according to the Journal's test samples.

“The uncertainty around how many cables remain, population exposed/at risk, and liability of legacy telecom companies is substantial and could take years to determine,” JPMorgan Managing Director Philip Cusick, an analyst who covers the telecom sector, wrote in a note to investors.

Verizon & AT&T Lead Cables?: Senator Markey Demands Answers

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety and the author of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, wrote to the United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) and demanded answers to questions raised by a Wall Street Journal investigation.

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.): "The telecommunications companies responsible for these phone lines must act swiftly and responsibly to ensure the mitigation of any environmental and public health effects."

Senator Markey requested that USTelecom respond to the following questions by July 25, 2023:

  1. Do the companies know the locations and mileage of lead-sheathed cables that they own or for which are responsible — whether aerial, underwater, or underground? Are there maps of the locations? If not, what plans do the companies have to identify the location of the cables?
  2. Why have the companies that knew about the cables — and the potential exposure risks they pose — failed to monitor them or act?
  3. What plans do the companies have to address the environmental and public health issues posed by the cables? Specifically, will the companies commit to:
    1. testing for soil, water, and other contamination caused by the cables?
    2. remediating any contamin?
    3. warning communities of the potential hazards the cables pose?
    4. guaranteeing medical treatment and compensation to anyone harmed by lead poisoning caused by the cables?

Potential Lead Exposure Health Risks, U.S. Telecom Industry Reply

Lead exposure is known to cause serious damage to children’s development and is associated with chronic pain among adults, and miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth during pregnancy, according to Markey's letter.

In an open letter of its own, USTelecom said: "The U.S. telecommunications industry stands ready to engage constructively on this issue.”

We'll be watching to see if or how the USTelecom association replies more fully to Markey's letter.

Paying More for Sustainable Broadband?

Meanwhile, some customers are calling on telecom companies to build sustainable networks that don't impact the environment. That call to action is growing louder in EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa), where 65% of consumers are now concerned about the carbon footprint of their broadband, with young people aged 18-24 the most concerned (73%), Cisco Systems research found. In addition, 77% said they would be willing to pay more for sustainable broadband, with around a quarter prepared to pay a price premium of more than 20%, Cisco said.

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