Last Week Tonight was back with, and this time they brought some friends to help educate viewers, and politicians, about the dangers of lead poisoning. It's a topic that rose to prominence recently, with nearly 100,000 residents of Flint, Michigan receiving contaminated water, including 9,000 children.
Host John Oliver pointed out that "with all the bureaucratic clusterfuckery involved, politicians in Washington were lining up to be outraged". And rightfully so! As one politician pointed out "we've got children who have been harmed", and needed to be addressed. That disaster caused the country to become aware to the problem of lead in Michigan. However, the greater issue is that the lead problem is not confined to just Michigan. One study identified excessive lead levels in "almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states". The problem is one with no easy solution - cities often don't even know the location of these lead pipes, and trying to partially solve the problem would only make it worse in other areas.
Lead poisoning can happen in other ways too. One activist pointed out that the majority of lead poisoning in children happens because of the lead in the paint in their homes. Approximately 2,144,000 homes in the United States contain lead dust hazards and children under the age of six, and over 500,000 children under the age of five have excessive lead levels in their blood. Oliver summed it up best by saying that, "lead is almost as much of a scourge in young children's homes as Frozen merchandise" (#LetLetItGoGo).
Children are exceptionally susceptible to lead poisoning, with there being literally no safe level of lead in the blood. Poisoning can lead to brain damage, or worse, death. Even small amounts can lead to irreparable damage, like lower IQs, behaviour issues, and attention span difficulties.
The problem of lead in homes is nothing new. As early as 1996, 20 years ago, the dangers were known. Sesame Street even had a segment warning children about the dangers of lead. If the dangers were well known even then, why is it still such a prevalent issue?
While many countries banned lead in paint as early as the 1920s, the United States began putting it "everywhere". The cause? Excessive and aggressive lobbying efforts by those in the lead industry. Even after the lead in paint was finally addressed in the late 1970s, the lead industry pushed back, claiming it was still safe, despite the plethora of evidence to the contrary.
Lead was eventually banned in paint and gas, but the problem of pre-existing lead was never fully addressed. As Oliver mentioned, "the cost of getting rid of it all was surprisingly high". The HUD estimated that it would cost $16.6 billion per year, and the government has consistently underfunded removal efforts. In 2001, the HUD received only $175 million, but this has steadily been decreasing, in large part due to the Republican-controlled Congress. In 2016, it approved just $110 million in funding. Oliver commented, "that's a little more than Americans spent on Ride Along 2, a movie which, incidentally, the New York Post described as 'funny as lead poisoning'".
This means that a large number of American families still live in homes alongside dangerous levels of lead, and most of them are those who have lower socioeconomic circumstances. People without a lot of money can't easily move to better accommodations, and are stuck in their poisonous homes.
The truly infuriating part is that removing lead is actually better for the economy. A UPI study showed a link between "decreasing levels in lead and a fall in crime", and the Environmental Health Perspectives conduced a study which showed that for every dollar invested in lead control results in $17 to $221 back in overall social benefits.
Politicians, however, don't seem to be concerned about the dangerous effects of lead, even on children, outside of Michigan. Many voted to reduce funding even further, and others, including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, have vowed to wipe out protection agencies altogether.
In true Last Week Tonight fashion, Oliver and the team developed a way to help us all become more concerned with the issue. With the help of his friends at Sesame Street, Oliver, Elmo, Rosita, and Oscar sang a song educating and informing us of the dangers of lead, and encouraged politicians to get just as angry about the effects across the country.
You can watch the segment below, including the incredibly catchy song. Last Week Tonight returns next week at 11:00pm on HBO.