US Senator Ed Markey has written to the United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) demanding answers following revelations around toxic lead cabling in a recent investigation.

The WSJ found there are levels of lead contamination in water and soil samples near aging telecommunications infrastructure.

telecom cable
– Getty Images

Two operators, AT&T and Verizon, were accused by the publication of contaminating US land and water with the lead-lined cables laid before the 1960s.

"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 wrote in his letter to USTelecom. 

“This is corporate irresponsibility of the worst kind[…] The members of USTelecom that are responsible for these lead-sheathed cables have a duty — both civic and legal — to ensure that they do not put Americans in harm’s way. I will be awaiting answers to my questions, expecting further action and commitments from USTelecom’s members, and watching closely from my seats on Senate committees that have jurisdiction over the environmental and public health issues these cables present.”

In his letter, Markey has leveled a number of questions the way of USTelecom and has given the association until July 25, 2023, to respond.

  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:
  • Testing for soil, water, and other contamination caused by the cables?
  • Remediating any contamination?
  • Warning communities of the potential hazards the cables pose?
  • Guaranteeing medical treatment and compensation to anyone harmed by lead poisoning caused by the cables?

In total, the test samples from nearly 130 underwater-cable sites, conducted by several independent laboratories, were found to be toxic, revealed the WSJ last week.

The publication noted its investigation revealed a hidden source of contamination in more than 2,000 lead-covered cables that haven't been addressed by the companies or environmental regulators.

Although US mobile operators haven't used cabling containing lead since 1964, old cabling is typically left in place when traditional cabling is replaced with fiber.

USTelecom acknowledged the findings of the report swiftly after it was revealed, and said that it has a dedicated section on its website with information about the lead cabling.

"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. 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," said a USTelecom statement last week.

AT&T has hit out at the investigation, claiming that the methodology behind the research is flawed, and noted that it's a conflict of interests.

"We take the matters raised by The Journal very seriously, and any public health concern is a top priority. It’s important to note that The Journal’s reporting 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, which we have made available to the public and shared with The Journal. The scientific literature and reliable studies in the US and abroad give no reason to believe that these cables pose a public health issue or a risk to workers when appropriate safety measures are in place."

Markey has authored three of the nation's governing telecommunications laws, including the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996.