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Openreach on Concerns Over Lead Poisoning from Old UK Cables

Monday, Jul 17th, 2023 (12:01 am) - Score 7,296
Pond water pollution concept. Scientist takes samples of dirty water from a pond into a test tube.

The Wall Street Journal in America recently ran an alarming multipage story that warned of how lead-insulated telecoms cables, which were installed decades ago, had been found to allegedly be poisoning the ground and nearby water. Similar cables were installed by BT (GPO) in the UK, but do they still pose a risk? We asked Openreach.

The dangers of lead metal are nothing new, and hopefully most people have some pre-existing awareness of that. Just to be clear, touching lead does carry a small risk, but it generally isn’t the main problem. The issue becomes much more dangerous when you breathe in (e.g. dust from renovations that involve lead or certain lead-based paints) or swallow it (e.g. a contaminated water supply).

NOTE: The focus in this article is on lead-sheathed telecom cables (i.e. where lead is used to create the sheath of the cable – helping to insulate and protect the inner wiring), which have been around since the late 1800s and started being phased out in the 1950s.

Children are at greater risk of lead poisoning because their bodies more readily absorb lead and, worse, such poisoning often occurs with no obvious initial symptoms. But if you are unlucky enough to be exposed to such poisoning, then it can affect nearly every system in your body, particularly the brain and nervous system.

The aforementioned details are important because they help to explain why the WSJ’s report raised so many concerns. The report alleged that more than 2,000 lead-covered cables left behind by telecommunication companies (e.g.Verizon, AT&T, and others) in the USA could be a source of soil contamination as they degrade underwater and overhead.

The Journal claims to have tested samples from about 130 underwater cable sites and found lead present in the soil at more than 48 locations, where contamination was deemed beyond levels determined safe by the EPA. According to the EPA, the safety standard for lead levels in the soil where children play is 400 parts per million (600ppm in the UK), but at least one of the sites – sediment in a Louisiana fishing spot – had 14.5 times that amount in June 2022.

What about the UK?

Openreach (BT) has informed ISPreview that neither they nor their predecessors (General PostOffice) have installed lead-sheathed cables for decades. But like other infrastructure players – including power and water companies (lead pipes) – they do still manage cables, which were installed when lead sheathing was prevalent.

However, in terms of Openreach’s network, there are some key differences. In particular, many of the legacy cables in the US were often directly buried in the ground, while similar cables in the UK were typically housed in underground ducts. In other words, they’re not in direct contact with soil and only a tiny minority (fewer than 5%) connect directly to homes and businesses.

NOTE: Many of these older cables may be removed as the operator slowly extracts them following the rollout of fibre optic (FTTP) broadband lines.

Openreach have also invested heavily in their safety practices and environmental controls, which are said to be independently audited and certified (ISO 14001). The Environment Agency has also never raised any related concerns with the operator, and Openreach said they’re not aware of any research or evidence that lead-sheathed telecom cables present an issue in the UK.

Regulations in this area have traditionally tended to focus on larger and more direct sources of potential lead exposure in the environment, such as vehicle fuels, industrial activities, paint, consumer products and the pipes used for drinking water.

Lead materials are also still widely used in a variety of UK industries, utilities, buildings and products (e.g. lead flashing on roofing which comes into direct contact with rain water). Suffice to say that, when considering lead poisoning, old telecoms cables aren’t top of the hit list.

Speaking of drinking water, the UK is deemed, unlike in the USA, to have some of the cleanest drinking water in the world. The water supplied in the UK is generally found to be virtually lead free, although a tiny amount can sometimes get into your supply as it passes through lead plumbing inside or outside your home (mostly an issue for older homes). Water companies commonly add orthophosphate to our drinking water as a plumbosolvency agent to tackle this, but problems can still crop up. If you’re worried, then it is possible to buy a water test to check what’s coming out of your taps.

Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that telecoms cable ducts aren’t infallible. Over time, some ducts do become compromised by breakages that can result in blockages, and the cables could thus then come into contact with the surrounding soil. Such issues are usually very limited and isolated to specific areas, but it may present a small risk and one that further research might help to fully alleviate.

We did ask Openreach if they had any idea about the status of related ducts and how many of these cables might still exist, although at the time of writing the operator hadn’t yet provided a solid figure.

The WSJ’s findings are disputed

Finally, it’s worth noting that both the methodology and findings of the original report are currently being disputed by the operators and related pro-telecoms organisations (here and here). The key takeaway being that neither the regulators nor the relevant network operators have, through their own testing, found anything to worry about.

Research from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which conducts research, development, and demonstration projects for the benefit of the public in the USA and internationally, has also previously found no cause for concern: “Overall, the risks from exposure to lead in lead-sheathed cable are very low, and replacing cable for reasons of environmental protection alone isn’t justified at this time.

Statement from AT&T

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 U.S. 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.

Based on information shared by The Journal, it appears that certain of their testing methodologies are flawed and one of the companies responsible for the testing is compromised by a conflict of interest.

Any new scientific data needs to be studied further before arriving at conclusions about public health and safety related to these cables. Should there be a need for further analysis of this topic, we will work collaboratively with industry peers and other stakeholders and act responsibly.

However, this is perhaps to be expected and doesn’t mean to say that more research, particularly from fully independent regulators and organisations with no connection to telecoms, isn’t warranted to help confirm that public health is not at risk. One issue here is that the USA does have somewhat of a mixed history with recognising and tackling public health concerns (teflon using PFOA, chromium etc.).

At the end of the day, the WSJ has raised an issue that probably does warrant a closer look and that perhaps shouldn’t be restricted to the USA. But at the same time, past research casts doubt on the likelihood of lead-sheathed telecom cables being the cause of serious contamination and that risk is significantly reduced in the UK, where such cables are normally found in ducts and probably won’t stay there for much longer.

As such, it seems as if the people likely to face the highest risk will be the engineers tasked with removing these cables, rather than the general UK public.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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16 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

    I would imagine the amount of lead covered telecom cables and the danger from them is fairly minimal in this country. Of more concern is that many power supply cables into properties which seem to have been installed into the 1960s and still in use in many older homes.

    1. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      The risks from lead “insulated” cables for either power or telecoms are next to nil, because it is not going to result in any measurable lead exposure for the population. It isn’t going to be affecting agriculture land*, and we don’t use aquifers subject to urban percolation (eg those under London are protected by multiple layers of impermeable clay and the recharge zones are outside of urban areas). Anybody working on them needs to take care but would be working under appropriate rules.

      The worry about shoddy journalism like this is that some idiot lawmaker goes on a crusade to fight the evil of lead, it becomes a legal obligation on telcos and energy suppliers to dig it all up and remove it much faster than asset replacement regimes would otherwise, and then the rest of us have to pay millions to replace something that doesn’t matter.

      * And shock, horror, ALL soils contain lead that occurs naturally.

    2. Avatar photo Andrew G says:

      And just to say my “shoddy journalism” comment is aimed at WSJ, not ISPR whose re-reporting and commentary are entirely valid.

  2. Avatar photo Billy Shears says:

    Falls under the heading of “let’s find something new to worry about (and which really isn’t a problem)”.

  3. Avatar photo Alex says:

    Slow news week?

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      A serious health issue was raised by a major newspaper in the USA with cables that we knew to be present in the UK too, albeit from a time long before I was alive (limited knowledge of that period). I got a few worried emails from readers about it, so checked into it and reported my findings as per the usual approach.

      If you don’t like it when ISPreview fact checks such topics, then feel free to stop visiting, as it’s something we do a lot, as par for the course. This site is primarily written to help inform people who are NOT pre-existing experts in the sector.

    2. Avatar photo Alex says:

      Was aimed more at the Wall Street Journal than you Mark and in common with the other comments here. Certainly not a criticism. You’ve done a much better job than they did of reporting it.

    3. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      Wasn’t clear, but sorry for jumping on you a bit there, Alex.

    4. Avatar photo ADSL56k says:

      I’d Agree Alex. Considering the USA has 50% more cancer causing products used in their food and notto mention the tap water – I’m sure lead lined cables are the least of their worries. WSJ are notorious or kicking up stinks when they are lacking content.

  4. Avatar photo anon says:

    lol. A country that has a poisoned water supply, toxic air, chemical food finds a problem with some cables in UK that isn’t really a problem. As the yanks would say: give me a break.

    1. Mark-Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      The original newspaper piece was focused on cables in the USA, not the UK. My take above investigated whether a similar issue or concerns exist in the UK.

  5. Avatar photo Ex Telecom Engineer says:

    This isn’t something I’ve heard of before, but it doesn’t strike me as a risk issue in relation to soil contamination. Most UK cables are either in ducts or overhead, so will never come into contact with soil and even if a duct collapsed, as previously mentioned, it will be an extremely localised issue.
    I would think this will be more of a risk to workers employed in recovery and disposal of the affected cables, so should be taken account during a COSHH risk assessment.

  6. Avatar photo MilesT says:

    Good piece of locally relevant journalism, Mark.

  7. Avatar photo Bobv says:

    While lead covered cable were used extensively across the GPO network, either MU Main Unit such as Birmingham to London, or CJ CABLE Juction Local Exchange to Local Exchange, either underground or overhead, before PVC covered were introduced. A lot of theses MU, CJ cables have been recovered. There are many miles of lead covered cables into customer premises. In the early days properties would have a lead covered lead-in, some are still working, not many have been recovered, as it would be a major task, just think of a large National Trust property house, from the road to house, could be a mile of lead covered cable. I really think you should be worried about water supplies in homes. Our 1937 house had a lead feed from the road, and a reasonable amount of internal lead piping,I have replaced it all with a PVC feed and copper internal, 30 years ago. Also got a good amount from the scrap yard for it. We live in Birmingham so we have soft water, standing water can have lead transfer into it, it is recommended to run the tap if the water supply is only occasionally used.

  8. Avatar photo AnotherTim says:

    I suspect that the worst site reported – sediment in a Louisiana fishing spot which had 14.5 times the safe amount – was more likely to be contaminated from lead fishing weights than telecoms cables.

  9. Avatar photo Tim Pye says:

    It would seem that lead-sheathed cables are still available. Are these the same type as reported by the WSJ? Do you think that they should be prohibited and are there suitable alternatives?


Comments are closed

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