AT&T and Verizon Knew About Toxic Lead Cables—and Did Little

AT&T and Verizon Knew About Toxic Lead Cables—and Did Little

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His topic was lead-covered cables, which once carried phone service and had long been obsolete. Weren’t these ancient cables gone?

“NO,” his slide presentation said. “Some older metropolitan areas may still have over 50% lead cable,” the slide said. In some places, they posed risks for phone-company workers and the surrounding environment, Malone concluded.

For decades, AT&T, Verizon and other firms dating back to the old Bell System have known that the lead in their networks was a possible health risk to their workers and had the potential to leach into the nearby environment, according to documents and interviews with former employees.

They knew their employees working with lead regularly had high amounts of the metal in their blood, studies from the 1970s and ’80s show. Environmental records from an AT&T smelting unit in the 1980s show contamination in the soil. Government agencies have conducted inspections, prompted by worker complaints, that led to citations for violations involving lead exposure and other hazardous materials more than a dozen times over four decades, records show.

Over the years, AT&T officials themselves expressed concern about possible worker exposure to lead. Risks include kidney issues, heart disease and reproductive problems in adults, according to U.S. health agencies.

Yet the companies haven’t meaningfully acted on potential health risks to the surrounding communities or made efforts to monitor the cables, according to historical data, documents and interviews with former executives, safety managers and workers who handled lead. The telecom industry’s lead-covered cables have been largely unknown to the public. The industry doesn’t have a program to remove or assess their condition. Four former Federal Communications Commission chairs said they weren’t aware of lead in phone networks.

In the 2010 presentation, Malone acknowledged the environmental impact, saying that “soils retained between 83 and 98 percent of the released lead within 2 inches” from the cables.

“They knew the risks, but they didn’t want to do a lot to mitigate it,” said James Winn, who worked as a cable splicer among other jobs for several Bell System companies for 45 years. Company testing in the 1980s found that he had high levels of lead in his blood, but his manager told him to go back to working with lead shortly after, he said.

A Wall Street Journal investigation has revealed that telecom companies left behind more than 2,000 potentially dangerous lead-covered cables under water, in soil and overhead. Many more are likely to exist.

Journal reporters visited about 300 cable sites around the U.S. and collected roughly 200 environmental samples at nearly 130 of those sites. Roughly 80% of sediment samples taken next to underwater cables showed elevated levels of lead.

Doctors say that no amount of lead is safe, whether ingested or inhaled, particularly for children’s physical and mental development. Without further exposure, lead stays in the blood for only about two or three months, but it can be stored in organs longer and in bones even for decades, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, director of the program for global public health and the common good at Boston College.

Like asbestos, lead must either be sealed away or removed completely to eliminate the risks. USTelecom, a trade group that represents companies in the industry, said “the scientific literature and available studies” on lead-sheathed cables show they aren’t a public-health issue or a risk to workers when precautions are used.

The group declined to provide or describe any such studies and literature.

Malone, who has worked for AT&T for more than two decades and is considered an industry lead expert, declined to publicly comment.

An AT&T spokesman said that “these are public industry presentations about occupational health procedures to protect employees during the removal or repair, which is in line with our commitment to managing these legacy cables in accordance with relevant laws and regulations. It would be false and misleading for the Journal to imply or state that any industry presentation about worker safety is an acknowledgement that lead-clad cables pose a general public health issue. As reflected in these presentations, we follow best practices to maintain this legacy infrastructure in a way that’s safe for all based on established science.”

In a 2013 presentation, Malone described how workers should be protected in the field, saying “POISON” signs needed to be placed visibly for technicians working with lead, and that workers handling the toxic metal should wear respirator masks and disposable Tyvek coveralls.

“The health, safety and well-being of our people, our customers, and our communities is of paramount importance,” AT&T said in a written statement. “The legacy cables that remain in our networks are maintained in compliance with applicable environmental, health, and safety rules, consistent with our approach for all our infrastructure.”

On a webpage, AT&T said the Journal’s reporting on potential harm connected to lead cables “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.” The company provided the Journal with a single test report related to one lead-cable location, in Lake Tahoe, that said it found “very low” levels of lead in the water and that the lake’s water quality is “not adversely impacted” by the lead cables.

In a written statement, Verizon said it is “taking these concerns regarding lead-sheathed cables very seriously,” and is testing sites where the Journal found contamination. It added: “There are many lead-sheathed cables in our network (and elsewhere in the industry) that are still used in providing critical voice and data services, including access to 911 and other alarms, to customers nationwide.”

The cables were laid by the original American Telephone & Telegraph, also known as the Bell System, which operated as a group of regional telephone companies starting in the late 1800s. With the breakup of the Bell System’s monopoly in 1984, regional phone companies became independent competitors that consolidated over time to form the backbone of modern carriers AT&T and Verizon.

Some lead experts say the cables should be removed, and any contaminated soil should be taken to an appropriate landfill. Removing a lead-sheathed cable could release lead into the environment during the process but some experts say leaving the lead could result in decadeslong contamination.

Other experts say less-drastic measures could decrease the risk of contamination, such as covering areas where the cables are exposed. Removing underwater cables would be a far more complicated and costly process that could require an assessment of the risk of disturbing the lead.

Telecommunications companies have wrestled with how to handle the cables. Malone’s 2010 presentation noted that removing the cables that were underground wasn’t easy. “Extraction of cable from underground duct can release unexpected high levels of lead dust,” the presentation said. “Underground cable presents real possibilities for overexposure” to workers removing them.

The oldest cables are typically at the bottom of a manhole or conduit, said retired AT&T executive Bill Smith. Cables from the 1920s could be nearly impossible to pull out, he said. “In the underground, unless you really needed the conduit duct…you would leave it in place,” he said.

Chuck Smith, former president of AT&T West, said company executives took environmental and worker safety seriously. When a lead cable “was left in place, it was left in place because it was safer…than to just dig up,” said Smith, who retired in 2006 after nearly 40 years at AT&T.

The question of who might be responsible for any cleanup is complicated, said Brian Berkey, an associate professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. When the cables were installed, if they were a reasonable and responsible decision, and considered safe at the time, the cleanup could ethically be a collective responsibility involving companies and the government, he said.


After the invention of the telephone in the 1870s, the first lines to go up were single-line connections strung on poles, connecting one point to another. Tangles of wires soon filled city skies. In the late 19th century, companies began using cables containing bundles of wires that delivered more capacity and better transmission. Sheathing the cable in lead cut electromagnetic noise in the wires and kept water out. By 1940, the majority of the phone network was in lead-covered cables.

There were signs at the dawn of the industry that lead could harm workers, Alice Hamilton, a pioneer of modern industrial medicine and the first female faculty member at Harvard University, included telephone workers among those facing risks from lead in her 1925 book “Industrial Poisons in the United States.”

By 1956, the Bell System was using around 100 million pounds of lead a year, according to a Bell document. That’s heavier than more than 6,660 male African elephants.

The industry began to deploy more cables that used plastics and alternative metals instead of lead over roughly the next decade, and moved away from installing new lead cables completely, as technology improved. Workers still maintained the old cables using molten lead and, at times, removed them.

In the 1970s, the U.S. began restricting lead in gasoline and banned lead-based paint in residential homes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration drafted its first standards on worker exposure to lead and other hazards.

Bell Laboratories, the Bell System’s technology and science engine, was a leader in lead research in the 1970s and invented a device that could screen for lead exposure from a drop of blood.

A 1977 Bell study provided a snapshot of high lead levels among female lead-soldering workers at Western Electric, then the manufacturing arm of the Bell System. Based on testing, it estimated that the workers had blood-lead levels in the range of 24 to 45 micrograms per deciliter. Those levels were as high as triple the average level of the population at the time. Bell scientists concluded the workers were “not being exposed to a lead hazard” because a control group of Western Electric office workers also had high estimated lead levels.

Blood tests showed high lead levels in another group of workers—cable splicers, who fixed and maintained cables. A 1978 letter between Communications Workers of America union officials said that AT&T “has confirmed that cable splicers may be exposed to a lead hazard,” and that the company “is anxious to test splicers that may have been or are exposed to overdoses of lead.”

The average lead levels in the blood of 90 cable splicers was more than 27 micrograms per deciliter, and 29% reported central nervous system symptoms, according to a 1980 paper by Mount Sinai, Bell Labs and New York City’s health department.

While regulations and lead bans drove down exposure across the population, there were still more than 40,000 telecom employees working with lead in 1983, according to a Bell System document. Even though companies stopped deploying new lead-sheathed cables in the 1960s, the existing network still needed to be maintained, and lead-based solder has remained in use.


In the mid-1980s, AT&T was recycling large amounts of materials as it updated its systems and retired tons of lead used throughout the network. The company did the work using its AT&T Nassau Metals division, part of Western Electric.

The smelting unit, which an AT&T executive said at the time received about 50 million pounds of lead-sheathed cable a year in Gaston, S.C., received citations from the state’s labor department for safety violations that affected, among others, “150 melt shop employees who are overexposed to lead.”

Environmental records show lead contamination in the soil next to the site. An inspection document from 1985 said workers there were exposed to airborne lead nearly 17 times OSHA’s safety standard. And a handwritten table by an AT&T official showed that among 90 workers tested that year, the average blood lead level was 33.7 micrograms per deciliter, more than twice average levels back then and nearly 10 times what’s considered high today.

Under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state scrutiny, AT&T agreed to help clean up the site, including properly containing waste and environmental monitoring.

Evidence suggests that workers have still faced exposure to lead in the modern era. A worker at CenturyLink, a company that descended from Ma Bell, alerted the CWA union that he was feeling intensely fatigued following work in manholes, triggering a 2013 Minnesota OSHA investigation that led to nine “serious” lead-related citations, according to union officials and regulatory records for CenturyLink, which now goes by Lumen Technologies.

A Minnesota OSHA document called the company’s lead training “inadequate” and showed that a worker handling lead was exposed to airborne lead averaging 76 micrograms per cubic meter of air over eight hours, 52% above the regulator’s limit.

“The well-being of our employees and communities is of the utmost importance,” a Lumen spokeswoman said, adding that the company has specialized safety training for handling lead-sheathed cables and will provide testing to current and former employees.

Between 2007 and 2016, blood-lead test results for 208 Verizon workers showed that 85, or more than 40%, had levels above 3.5 micrograms per deciliter, according to Verizon data shared with the union. That’s the current level at which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends seeking medical or environmental follow-up.

Rob Prokopowicz, who retired from Verizon in 2021 after 40 years of working with lead, said he raised concerns with managers about routinely pumping out water from manholes that was potentially contaminated with lead, including in front of schools. He said they told him, “If you don’t feel safe, we’ll send someone else.”

“When the manholes fill with rainwater and runoff, all the water we are pumping out is contaminated with lead dust,” said Prokopowicz, 62.

“For the small percentage of our workforce that may need to work around lead-sheathed cable, we have a robust safety and health program to provide training, materials and resources needed to do so safely,” a Verizon spokesman said. The company said its work practices on such cables are based on the available science, legal requirements and guidance from medical and work-safety organizations.

“Verizon’s long standing policy allows for any employee who requests to be tested for lead exposure to do so at any time and without any cost to the employee,” he said.

A study last year at Mount Sinai of 20 Verizon workers, with an average tenure of 23 years, showed that 60% had measurable lead in their tibias, said Dr. Rabeea Khan, the study’s principal investigator. “The fact that we can detect it in your bones suggests you have had long-term exposure,” she said.

Nearly half of the workers in the study, mostly cable splicers, showed lead concentrations of 10 micrograms per gram of bone, indicating increased risk of neurological or biological problems, Khan said. Mount Sinai is planning a broader study later this year.

In Walker County, Texas, some landowners alleged in a 2016 federal lawsuit that an abandoned AT&T underground lead cable that ran from Dallas to Houston was contaminating their properties, and demanded its removal. AT&T argued that “nonuse alone is insufficient to show abandonment,” and that the statute of limitations had passed. It also contested the claim that the cable was contaminated. The case was dismissed in 2020.

In 2021, an environmental group sued AT&T, alleging that two lead cables on the floor of Lake Tahoe were leaching lead, presenting “imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment,” and asked for them to be removed. The cables are estimated to be sheathed in more than 95,000 pounds of lead, based on permits filed by AT&T and an assay of a Lake Tahoe cable by Marine Taxonomic Services, which assisted the Journal in collecting samples for testing.

AT&T disputed the allegations and said it had stopped using the cables around the 1980s and no longer owned them. It agreed to settle the case and remove the cables at a cost of up to $1.5 million.

The cleanup has been delayed repeatedly. AT&T’s contractor has cited logistical issues including that removal could “disrupt nesting birds (bald eagles, Peregrine falcon, osprey),” according to an email reviewed by the Journal.

Testing in Lake Tahoe by the Journal in March and May of this year showed high levels of lead near the cables. AT&T said the Journal’s tests conflict with its own results from March 2021.

The company’s chief executive, John Stankey, has a house next to the lake and he has given money to The League to Save Lake Tahoe, an environmental group, according to property and donation records. The League to Save Lake Tahoe, in a web posting in 2020, referred to a local news article headlined: “The Cables Leaking Lead in Lake Tahoe.” The group is not a party to the Tahoe litigation. AT&T and Stankey declined to comment on his home or donations.

The League to Save Lake Tahoe said it has worked to have the cables removed as quickly as possible. “Because we’ve received donations from AT&T in the past, we had access to their senior leadership, which we used to voice our concerns and push them to remove the cables,” a spokesman for The League to Save Lake Tahoe said.

In response to the Journal’s reporting, AT&T, Verizon and a group representing the broader telecom industry said they would work together to address any concerns or issues related to lead-sheathed cables.

The EPA hasn’t gotten involved in the Tahoe dispute or publicly commented on the removal process.

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