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Lead from abandoned phone cables are polluting dozens of neighborhoods, investigation finds

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Degrading lead-covered cables hang above bus stops and schools, and sit underwater, in many parts of the US, The Wall Street Journal found.kampee patisena/Getty
  • The Journal estimates about 2,000 lead-covered phone cables are spread throughout the country.

  • As old cables degrade, lead can leach into the soil at high levels, the report found.

  • A 2021 pediatric study found that half the kids in the US have high levels of lead in their blood.

An investigation has revealed that more than 2,000 lead-covered cables left behind by telecommunication companies could be the source of soil contamination as they degrade underwater and overhead.

Despite efforts to rid the environment of dangerous lead paint and pipes, a Wall Street Journal investigation found that old cables abandoned by Verizon, AT&T, and others also pose a threat to unsuspecting Americans.

The Journal tested samples from about 130 underwater cable sites and found lead present in the soil of the Passaic River in New Jersey, the Detroit River in Michigan, the Willamette River in Oregon, and the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The soil of more than 48 locations where contaminated beyond levels determined safe by the EPA, the Journal found.

"Legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables were deployed in the nation's telecommunications infrastructure, and placement of these cables then began to get phased out in the 1950s, after the development of a new type of sheathing," a USTelecom spokesperson told Insider.

According to the EPA, the safety standard for lead levels in the soil where children play is 400 parts per million. Sediment in a Louisiana fishing spot often frequented by local kids was found to have 14.5 times that amount in June 2022, the Journal reported.

Former EPA official Linda Birnbaum told the Journal its 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."

A 2021 study published by JAMA Pediatrics, a peer-reviewed medical journal published by the American Medical Association, found that half of young kids in the US have high levels of lead in their blood. Exposure to lead can cause damage to the brain, and nervous system, and developmental issues in children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Journal's investigation found that more than 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.

Verizon did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment, which was made outside of normal working hours. An AT&T representative responded to Insider's request for comment by directing questions to broadband association USTelecom, but gave the Journal a written statement.

"The health, safety and well-being of our people, our customers, and our communities is of paramount importance," the statement read.

In the statement to the Journal, AT&T went on to say that the investigation's findings "conflicts not only with what independent experts and long-standing science have stated about the safety of lead-clad telecom cables but also our own testing."

"We have been unable to confirm the information reported by the Wall Street Journal because we do not have access to all of the data or methodology underlying its conclusions," the statement from USTelecom read. "We have not seen, nor have regulators identified, evidence that legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or the cause of a public health issue."

Read the original article on Business Insider