AT&T's CEO claims its legacy copper cables pose no health risk

July 27, 2023
The service provider says it is analyzing its network in cooperation with state and federal regulators.

AT&T is addressing concerns with investors and environmental agencies that its copper cable network, which includes lead-sheathed cables, is a health threat to the public.

The lead copper cable issue came to light after an investigative series published by the Wall Street Journal revealed the presence of 2,000 lead cables across the country. According to the report, several abandoned lines run through or under rivers, streams, and lakes that serve as drinking water sources for communities. What’s more, the report found the presence of these cables in local neighborhoods, playgrounds, and greenways where children may be exposed to them.

AT&T did not agree with the findings of the WSJ report.

The company agreed to remove lead-clad telecommunications cables from Lake Tahoe, which straddles California and Nevada, to resolve a lawsuit despite AT&T’s claims that they pose no danger. AT&T wants to pause cable removal work and have experts assess the situation.

AT&T previously said that no more than two-thirds of its lead-clad cabling "is either buried or in conduit, followed by aerial cable, and with a tiny portion running underwater."

Speaking on the operator’s Q2 earnings call, John Stakney, CEO of AT&T, said that the telco is reviewing its assets. “We believe that a deliberate review, in collaboration with the EPA and our industry partners, with reliable science at the forefront, is the responsible way to evaluate this issue,” he said. “Independent experts and long-standing science have given us no reason to believe these cables pose a public health risk. And our prior testing, which we shared publicly, confirms the established science.”

He added that AT&T will “be responsive to any concerns raised by recent reporting; we're doing additional testing at selected sites.”

While the telecom industry began to phase out the placement of new lead-clad cables in the 1950s, Stankey pointed out that lead-clad wires are still used in critical parts of the nation’s infrastructure, including the power grid, railways, and supporting telecom services. The lead in these cables, which federal and state authorities have regulated for decades, has been used to protect wires from exposure to the elements and does not rust.

“Some of these cables still provide important customer voice and data services, including connecting 911 service, fire alarms, and other central monitoring stations,” Stankey said. “We take the concerns raised very seriously as there is no higher priority than the health and safety of our employees and the communities where we live and work, period.”

New workforce safety measures

AT&T is working to address concerns about health risks to its workforce and the public by analyzing its assets and adopting new safety measures for employees with lead cabling.

The company works with its union partners to address employee safety for those who conduct maintenance and repair work on the older cable infrastructure.

Although AT&T complies with established standards for potential lead exposure for workers and meets or exceeds state and federal OSHA requirements for employees who work with lead, the telco offers additional health screenings.

“In the abundance of caution, one extra measure we've taken is to expand our existing practice of providing testing for employees involved in cable removal and have added a voluntary testing program for any employee who works with or has worked with lead-clad cables,” Stankey said. “We're offering the testing on company time and at company expense.”

Environmental, workforce regulator collaboration

Given the sheer size of AT&T, the company has long-standing partnerships with federal and state agencies and workplace regulators for decades on safety issues, including lead.

It is working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess potential issues.

“We are a big company, and we do an awful lot,” Stankey said. “We work with various substances and materials that are regulated. And we have infrastructure inside of our business of health and safety organizations that do this stuff professionally. It’s been part of the DNA of our business.”

The service provider, which offers health plans to a large majority of its employee base, continually monitors any spikes in health issues.

“We provide health plans to an awful lot of employees, and we pay attention to whether or not our employees are doing well on a variety of things,” Stankey said. And we care about whether they're healthy or if we're spending money fixing things, why are things broken in people's health.” 

About the Author

Sean Buckley

Sean is responsible for establishing and executing the editorial strategies of Lightwave and Broadband Technology Report across their websites, email newsletters, events, and other information products.

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