<byline>By Susan Pulliam, Shalini Ramachandran, John West, Coulter Jones and Thomas Gryta<byline>
AT&T, Verizon and other telecom giants have left behind a sprawling network of cables covered in toxic lead that stretches across the U.S., under the water, in the soil and on poles overhead, a Wall Street Journal investigation found. As the lead degrades, it is ending up in places where Americans live, work and play.
The lead can be found on the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, the Detroit River in Michigan, the Willamette River in Oregon and the Passaic River in New Jersey, according to the Journal’s tests of samples from nearly 130 underwater-cable sites, conducted by several independent laboratories. The metal has tainted the soil at a popular fishing spot in New Iberia, La., at a playground in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and in front of a school in suburban New Jersey.
The U.S. has spent decades eradicating lead from well-known sources such as paint, gasoline and pipes. The Journal’s investigation reveals a hidden source of contamination—more than 2,000 lead-covered cables—that hasn’t been addressed by the companies or environmental regulators. These relics of the old Bell System’s regional telephone network, and their impact on the environment, haven’t been previously reported.
Lead levels in sediment and soil at more than four dozen locations tested by the Journal exceeded safety recommendations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. At the New Iberia fishing spot, lead leaching into the sediment near a cable in June 2022 measured 14.5 times the EPA threshold for areas where children play. “We’ve been fishing here since we were kids,” said Tyrin Jones, 27 years old, who grew up a few blocks away.
For many years, telecom companies have known about the lead-covered cables and the potential risks of exposure to their workers, according to documents and interviews with former employees. They were also aware that lead was potentially leaching into the environment, but haven’t meaningfully acted on potential health risks to the surrounding communities or made efforts to monitor the cables.
Lead in a Coal Center, Pa., sediment sample was 7.5 times the EPA's recommended threshold for children's play areas.
Doctors say that no amount of contact with lead is safe, whether ingested or inhaled, particularly for children’s physical and mental development. Even without further exposure, lead can stay in the blood for about two or three months, and be stored in bones and organs longer. Risks include behavior and learning problems and damage to the central nervous system in children, as well as kidney, heart and reproductive problems in adults, according to U.S. health agencies.
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,” said Linda Birnbaum, a former EPA official and director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, a federal agency.
In Coal Center, Pa., medical tests independently sought by the mother of 6-year-old twins, Joyanna and Beau Bibby, and shared with the Journal, showed they had high levels of lead in their blood. The tests were taken a few days after they played in a lot next to their house under a drooping cable.