Lead cables filled with copper wires (Matt Brown | CC BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons)

Event highlights risks of lead-sheathed telecom cables

BC Global Public Health Program Director Phil Landrigan, M.D., spoke at roundtable convened by U.S. Senator Ed Markey '68, J.D. '72

Boston College Professor of Biology Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., founding director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, joined a roundtable discussion on February 5 that sought to raise awareness of health risks from lead contamination in degrading telecommunications cables.

The event was hosted by United States Senator Edward J. Markey ’68, J.D. ’72 (D-Mass.) as part of a site visit to Chicopee, Mass. Testing revealed that unsafe levels of lead in soil under hanging lead-covered phone lines that telecommunications companies installed across the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries—many of which still remain in communities such as Chicopee. 

During the last six months, investigations by The Wall Street Journal, Environmental Protection Agency, and independent researchers have found detectable levels of lead contamination in water and soil samples collected near lead-sheathed cables in sites across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that lead exposure can affect children’s development and neurological, renal, and reproductive health in adults.  

people around a conference table

"Prevention of exposure is the key to preventing lead toxicity," said BC Global Public Health Program Director Phil Landrigan (second from right), who joined U.S. Senator Ed Markey (far left) and other officials at the February 5 event. (Photo courtesy of Senator Markey's office)

Speaking at the roundtable, Landrigan said, “Lead in telephone cables is a hazard for workers who come into direct contact with leaded cables in their jobs and for children who live, play, and go to school in communities underneath lead cables. In adult workers, lead from telephone cables increases risk for hypertension, kidney disease, heart disease, and stroke. In children, lead causes brain damage with loss of IQ, shortened attention, span, and lifelong disruption of behavior.

“Prevention of exposure is the key to preventing lead toxicity. To effectively prevent exposure to lead from telephone cables in both workers and children, we urgently need to develop detailed maps showing the location of all lead-containing telecommunications cables across the United States.”

Appearing at the event with Landrigan and Markey were James Contentas and Lawrence Graham, retired members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as well as researcher Jack Caravanos, a professor of environmental health at New York University’s School of Global Public Health. Also present were EPA Regional Administrator David Cash, Massachusetts State Senator Paul Mark, Occupational Health and Safety Administration Area Director Mary Hoye, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Deputy Branch Chief for Emerging Technology Lilia Chen, and Sarita Hudson of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts.

“We need to protect the families in the 21st century from corporate decisions made in the 19th and 20th centuries,” said Markey. “We need more information on where these lead-covered cables are and if they pose a threat to workers and communities in Massachusetts and across the country. Telecommunications companies own these cables, and now they must own the solutions. It’s time they give us answers.”  

Find more information on the event here.