SCOTT VAN VOORHIS
JAN 17, 2024
Unions, telecoms grapple with fallout from a long-buried environmental mess: lead-sheathed cables
A major Wall Street Journal investigation over the summer revealed that there are as many as 2,000 old fashioned lead-covered phone cables strewn across the country, both in manholes and hanging from poles.
Now the concerns raised by the story are starting to percolate in Massachusetts and other New England states, which have their fair share of these potentially toxic cables, relics from the old days of the Baby Bell telephone companies.
Two Worcester area members of the IBEW, the electrical workers union, have tested positive for elevated levels of lead, union sources told Contrarian Boston. One electrical worker tested at three times the safe limit, while the other was just over the line.
In wake of the issues raised by the Journal article, Verizon has been offering blood tests to workers concerned about lead contamination, though to date just a handful have taken up the company on its offer, IBEW sources said.
Old lead-sheathed cables are a common sight during work by utility crew members in manholes. There are also major concerns in terms of potential lead exposure to the public through contaminated water and soil.
“They abandoned it in place,” said one IBEW source of the old lead-covered cables. “You could be down in a manhole with ten different cables,” the union electrician noted. “You move the cables around and that disturbs the lead and it becomes airborne.”
Lead from the old cables has turned up on the banks of major rivers across the country, not to mention on a playground in suburban New Jersey and at a fishing spot in Louisiana, according to the Journal.
Federal and state regulators in New York, where the story first broke, have announced all sorts of reviews and investigations.
However, other than a statement by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, it’s been strangely quiet here in Massachusetts, with no word yet from the Healey administration on what, if any, action they are considering.