John Oliver Tackles Lead Poisoning On 'Last Week Tonight' & Makes The Problem So Easy To Understand — VIDEO
"It's a little weird to see people make a toast as they essentially drink poison," John Oliver quipped Sunday night on HBO's Last Week Tonight. The talk show host explained what's not so funny about this tragedy, while rolling video of inept public officials clinking their glasses. That poison, of course, is Flint, Michigan's water supply. They were celebrating the city's change to a new water source, the same one that would go on to degrade Flint's pipes and poison its people. You'll be able to better understand the Flint crisis after watching Oliver tear into lead poisoning, a problem that extends far greater than the borders of the city, or even Michigan.
Lead, as Oliver pointed out, is the "most dangerous thing in Led Zeppelin's name, and I will remind you, the other thing was 'Zeppelin.'" That's pretty dangerous — for those of you who are history-challenged, the Hindenburg was a zeppelin. But joking aside, Oliver tackled a very real problem. Between jokes and puns, Oliver spent much of Sunday's program highlighting a USA Today report that more than 2,000 water systems across 50 states experience problems similar to Flint's — but we don't hear about them.
"We can't just act like it's not there, the way we all pretend the public swimming pool is not 3 percent child's urine," Oliver said. That's because lead is extremely dangerous. There is no safe established level for children. Just low levels of lead ingestion, according to the CDC, can seriously harm children's development — especially cognitive development. The solution, though, is not a simple one — even if every lead pipe in the country were ripped up.
That's because pipes are not the biggest source of lead poisoning. As one lead activist shown on Last Week Tonight put it, "Kids are not going to get poisoned from a water fountain at their school. They're not. They're going to get poisoned from paint in their homes." That's because ingesting lead dust is extremely common. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated more than 2 million homes have a lead dust hazard, and the CDC has estimated that approximately half a million children have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Oliver even used Sesame Street to try and make his point. Twenty years ago, the kids' program had a segment — complete with its own song — to teach children about the dangers of lead and the importance of staying clear of peeling paint. Back in the 1920s, other countries had already banned lead paint, but that didn't happen in the United States until the 1970s. The lead industry was one of the main reasons for the delay — they pushed back hard against claims that lead paint was unhealthy.
Oliver points out that things have been improving ever since lead paint was outlawed and leaded gasoline was phased out, calling it a "major public health victory." He even took your office's intern as an example. "You know that 18-year-old intern in your office who thinks he's so damn smart. Well, he probably is, because he was born after America's lead epidemic," Oliver joked.
But there's more to be done. The existing lead was not removed because the cost of doing so was prohibitively high, even as late as 2000 — around $16.6 billion per year for the next decade to remove all lead from existing housing stock, Oliver said. But even the stop-gap measures of sealing in lead for low-income families was not adapted — and those would have only cost about $230 million. In the end, many Americans still live with lead in their homes, and they tend to be poorer Americans.
So what did Oliver do? He took the issue back — where else — to Sesame Street.