John Oliver and Elmo Want to Know Why We Don’t Fix Our Lead Crisis

Oscar the Grouch and Rosita also joined the ‘Last Week Tonight’ host to question why politicians don’t fund cleanup efforts.
Apr 18, 2016·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

It’s been 20 years since the puppets living on Sesame Street educated the nation’s preschoolers on how to avoid being poisoned with lead—“Wash your hands before you eat,” and “Stay away from peeling paint.” Given the recent catastrophe in Flint, Michigan, we know that’s not always enough to keep youngsters safe. That’s why on Sunday’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Elmo, Rosita, and Oscar the Grouch teamed up with host John Oliver to turn the spotlight on why the nation’s lead crisis goes far beyond corroded pipes.

“Lead is still all around us—our pipes, our walls, and our air,” Oliver sang as the puppets danced alongside him. “We should do more to contain it, but first we all have to care.” It all depends, explained Oliver and the puppets, on whether politicians want to keep saving money in the short-term or if they want to take action by investing in children’s futures.

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Oliver began the segment with a recap of how the 2014 decision to source water from the Flint River—to save the city $5 million—resulted in corrosive H2O leaching lead from pipes and poisoning residents. It’s a catastrophe that could be replicated nationwide. Oliver shared that a recent USA Today report found lead contamination in roughly 2,000 other water systems across the U.S. “We can’t just act like it’s not there the way we all pretend that the public swimming pool is not 3 percent child urine,” he joked.

But Oliver also detailed how lead from pipes is merely the tip of the iceberg. Many countries banned lead paint in the 1920s, but “instead of joining them, America decided to put lead basically everywhere,” he said. He then showed a clip from a 1948 film of a Department of the Interior worker painting a home with lead paint while a narrator extolled its virtues.

Thanks to Congress not fully funding removal efforts, the lead paint the beloved Sesame Street characters sang about in 1996 can still be found in 2.1 million homes with kids under the age of six, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also show that roughly 535,000 kids ages one to five have elevated blood-lead levels, Oliver explained. “There is no safe level of lead. It’s one of those things so dangerous you shouldn’t even let a little bit of it inside you—much like heroin or Jeremy Piven,” he joked.

The prohibitions on lead paint and leaded gasoline that went into effect in the 1970s and 1980s were a step in the right direction—fewer children are now inhaling lead dust. “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 said.

But he shared a HUD estimate that found it would have cost $16.6 billion from 2001 to 2010 to test and fix lead paint–contaminated homes and buildings. Congress failed to appropriate those funds, and in 2015, it allocated a meager $110 million for lead-paint removal. As Oliver explained, some of the same politicians who railed against the crisis in Flint voted for a bill that cut funding to lead-abatement programs.

The Sesame Street characters and Oliver wondered why the govenment doesn’t do more to keep the nation’s kids safe from lead. Oscar the Grouch helpfully emerged from his garbage can to point out that according to a “study in Environmental Health Perspectives, every dollar we spend on lead-paint hazard control produces returns of at least 17 to 1.”

Elmo’s lyrics make the point: “Lead’s a really big problem. Seems like it’s everywhere. We can do more to fix it. But first, we all have to care.”