Groundbreaking investigative reports by the Wall Street Journal indicate telecom companies abandoned thousands of lead cables across the U.S., and lawmakers are calling for their removal. News reports indicate the widespread contamination of soil and drinking water has put children and adults in harm’s way dating back to the 1800s.

Now, telecommunications corporations are expected to be tasked with safety training and distributing lineman lead protective clothing to eliminate cables contaminating soil, water, playgrounds, and communities.

Why Did Telecom Companies Use Lead Cables?

Prior to the development of plastic cable insulators, companies routinely used lead to protect copper lines from water and degradation. From the late 1800s to the 1960s, little was known about the health risks associated with lead exposure.

When scientists uncovered the damage the toxic heavy metal inflicted on young children, as well as adults, lawmakers called for cleanup and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandated the use of lineman safety clothing, among other regulations. Unfortunately, cleanup primarily focused on lead paint abatement and removing it from gasoline products.

By 1956, the Bell System was reportedly using approximately 100 million pounds of lead annually. Big telecom corporations weighed the risks versus costs and chose to leave lead-laced cables in place rather than outfit workers with lineman safety clothing and clean up more than 2,000 hazardous cables.

Reports indicate officials at AT&T acknowledged in 2010 that upwards of 50 percent of the lead cables in some metropolitan areas may still be active. The company reportedly stated that underground lead cabling “presents real possibilities for overexposure.” Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) demand prompt lead remediation.

The process would call for telecom linemen, construction workers, and lead abatement specialists to remove and dispose of the cables. But when aging lines are disturbed, they typically release lead that presents a clear and present danger to workers. The toxin may also affect the soil and drinking water when handled.

Testing would determine which areas require soil extraction and cleanup. That means hundreds, if not thousands, of workers could soon need additional personal protective equipment (PPE) and lineman lead protective clothing due to the dangers of exposure.

How Dangerous Are Lead Cables Right Now?

What could be the largest lead abatement and cleanup process to date, deserted cables crisscross the country, and many run underwater. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), among others, notes that no level of lead is safe.

Yet lead has spread along waterways, into the soil of communities, and drinking water. After almost 130 soil samples were tested near lead cables, riverbanks in Michigan, Louisiana, Oregon, and New Jersey, among many others, exhibited high levels of pollution. A playground in Wappingers Falls, New York, as well as land in front of a New Jersey school, tested at toxic levels.

The following are among the more troubling test results that far exceeded the U.S. soil standard of 400 parts per million (ppm) for active children’s play areas and 1,200 ppm for non-active regions. The CDC standard for lead concentrations in drinking water stands at 15 parts per billion.

  • Emerald Bay: Located near Lake Tahoe, tests revealed lead concentrations of 7,410 parts per billion and 1,390 parts per billion near underwater cables.
  • New Iberia, LA: A popular fishing spot was reportedly 14.5 times higher than the EPA soil limit. An estimated 500 pounds of lead was buried at the Bayou Teche more than 80 years ago.
  • Wappingers Falls: Approximately 60 miles north of New York City, lead cables hung over a playground where lead testing revealed concentrations of 1,000 parts per million.

Exposure to lead has been linked to brain damage, low IQs, and developmental conditions in young children. Should Congress and the EPA act decisively, teams of linemen and those involved in soil and other cleanup will be at heightened risk.

Effects of Lead Exposure on Linemen and Remediation Workers

A general consensus exists in the medical community that no amount of lead is safe. Compounding the risk to linemen and abatement workers, lead can enter the body through inhalation or ingestion. When burned, it persists in tiny particles, and casual contact can result in airborne dust particles. Without complete lineman lead protection PPE and disposable clothing, these are conditions workers could suffer.

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Miscarriage or Premature Birth
  • Reduced Sperm Count
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Muscle Disorders
  • Emotional Disorders
  • Impacted Cognitive Functions

Following lead exposure, the heavy metal remains in the bloodstream for upwards of three months. It’s not uncommon for this toxin to take root in bones, joints, and internal organs. It’s also important to note that current field workers are tasked with making repairs and updates to already tainted telecommunications infrastructure. That means lineman lead protection may not be adequately addressed.

How Should Lead Cable and Soil Abatement be Handled?

Exposure can put workers tasked with abatement in harm’s way, and industry guidelines call for handling the toxin like asbestos. Although not linked to cancer as closely as asbestos, the debilitating effects of lead are well documented. Like asbestos, the material is best mitigated when it can be encapsulated and transferred for processing or appropriate disposal. These are proactive lineman lead protection measures employers can implement to help prevent unnecessary illnesses.

  • Prepare Work Area: It’s imperative to secure the area before lead abatement and removal begins. When conditions allow, sealing the space off with protective plastic sheeting reduces the amount of escaping airborne particles from contaminating the surrounding area.
  • Safety Protocols: Outdated lead cables may run through a range of facilities. As workers handle the old and brittle metal, it is likely to flake into airborne dust particles and cling to people and surfaces. Lineman lead protection requires HVAC units, fans, and other air movement equipment to be shuttered.
  • Handling Lead Cables: Although asbestos mitigation often involves wetting the substance, lead is already dangerously leaching into soil and water. Encasing the toxic metal, whenever practical, reduces dust and skin contact. During the lead preparation phase, lineman safety clothing and respirators are mandated.

Along with the linemen who will directly engage with lead cables and the shavings around the decaying material, soil removal is expected to follow. Backhoe, bulldozer, and dump truck operators are not necessarily used to managing carcinogens of this fashion. Construction workers will also need a complete inventory of lead protective clothing when excavating, transporting, and putting tainted soil in secure locations.

What PPE Do Linemen and Construction Crews Require to Handle Lead?

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates that PPE and lineman safety clothing be worn before entering potentially contaminated areas. These lead abatement steps outlined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) apply to lineman lead protective clothing usage.

  • Remove and store street clothes.
  • Adorn reusable safety clothing followed by disposable articles and coveralls overtop.
  • Put on snug-fitting eye protection and a properly fit-tested respirator.
  • Put on a disposable hood and headwear after the respirator.
  • Put on disposable foot coverings.

Lineman lead protection procedures also call for step-by-step clothing and equipment removal. The DOT and safety organizations recommend the following.

  • Use HEPA vacuums to remove lead dust and shavings.
  • In a designated space, remove all disposable protective clothing and place it in a sealed plastic bag labeled “lead-contaminated waste.”
  • Remove the respirator for cleaning.

Health and safety also call for showering before wearing street clothes and leaving the workplace. It’s also prudent to keep casual clothing in a separate area to prevent cross-contamination. Even tiny amounts of lead can negatively impact the development of small and/or unborn children.

U.S. Officials Focus on Lead Cable Removal, Decontamination

Lawmakers, the Federal Communications Commission that regulates telecom companies, and environmental groups, among others, are acting with a sense of emergency. Sen. Edward Markey reportedly called for immediate cleanup, stating it was the telecom giants’ “corporate irresponsibility.” The Environmental Defense Fund, Clean Water Action, and Below the Blue have called on the EPA to intervene immediately.

Removing the vast lead cables contaminating water, soil, and areas where children play may require enlisting thousands of telecom linemen, construction workers, and abatement professionals. Each worker will need adequate health and safety training. And every employer will need disposable personal protective clothing inventory to keep them safe.