The health of people across the United States may be threatened by toxic lead in cable lines left behind by giant U.S. telecom companies and by toxic lead in water pipes left in the ground by utility companies, according to two separate news reports on Sunday.
AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants have left behind thousands of cables laid decades ago underwater, in soil and on poles overhead, The Wall Street Journal reported. As the lead degrades, it is ending up where people live, work and play.
The Associated Press reported on Sunday that utility companies have been leaving lead pipe in the ground even when it can easily be removed during water main work. "Worse, they have been removing sections, disturbing the pipe and leaving the rest, which can spike lead levels, causing harm that will last a lifetime," AP said.
The Journal said its investigation revealed more than 2,000 lead-covered cables that have not been addressed by the telecom companies or environmental regulators. It said lead levels in sediment and soil at more than four dozen locations tested by the Journal exceeded safety recommendations set by the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA.
Telecom companies have known about lead-covered cables and the potential risks of exposure to their workers for many years, according to documents and interviews with former employees by the Journal. They were also aware that lead was potentially leaking into the environment, but they have not meaningfully acted on potential health risks to the surrounding communities or made efforts to monitor the cables.
The Journal's findings "suggest there is a significant problem from these buried lead cables everywhere, and it's going to be everywhere and you're not even going to know where it is in a lot of places", Linda Birnbaum, a former EPA official and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, told the newspaper.
In response to the Journal's reporting, AT&T, Verizon and other telecom companies that succeeded Ma Bell said they do not believe cables in their ownership are a public health hazard or a major contributor to environmental lead, considering the existence of other sources of lead closer to people's homes. They said they follow regulatory safety guidelines for workers dealing with lead.
AP reported there are 9.2 million lead pipes in the U.S. that contaminate drinking water with lead, damaging brain development in children. Around the country, utilities have been ignoring removing lead pipe when they uncover it during work on water mains.
They have often removed a short pipe section, reburied the connection and left the rest, AP reported. Research shows this method can spike, rather than reduce, lead levels.
Sections of pipes that remain can contaminate tap water until they are removed and doing so will be more expensive because crews presumably will have to return someday.