John Oliver takes on the lead poisoning problem still sweeping America

Sesame street lead poisoning john oliver

In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, John Oliver took a look at America’s relationship to lead on Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight.” The situation isn’t pretty, he discovered, so he enlisted “Sesame Street” to help get the message out.

First, a USA Today study found that lead was present in water in all 50 states. But that’s not even the worse source of lead poisoning in our homes. An American Healthy Homes Survey estimated that more than 2.1 million children under the age of six live in homes with lead dust hazards. And the CDC estimated that a little over 500,000 aged five and under have elevated levels of lead in their blood.

“That’s terrible,” the host said. “Lead is almost as much of a scourge in young children’s homes as ‘Frozen’ merchandise.”

The US lagged behind the rest of the world in banning the use of lead in paint in the 1920s. 

“We knew it was dangerous,” Oliver said. “But instead of joining [the lead ban], America put lead basically everywhere.”

In addition to interior paint, lead paint has been used in different forms to fight rust on metal, such as bridges, and to protect wood, as in the exteriors of homes. But in the 1970s, several studies showing the health dangers of lead helped to ban it. As a result, the US saw a significant decrease in lead levels in children’s blood. But the real problem was still all the lead that we used before the ban.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s program to seal in lead and wash the dust from homes needs about $230 million to effectively keep poisoning at bay. Yet it has never been given anywhere near that number. 

“This year, we’ve allocated just $110 million. That is just a little more than Americans spent to see ‘Ride Along 2,'” Oliver said. “A movie that incidentally the New York Post described as ‘as funny as lead poisoning.’ It’s amazing.”

As a result, many Americans, mostly the poor, continue to live with the dangers of lead in their homes. And one would think after all the outrage of the the Flint water controversy, politicians would support efforts to rid homes of lead. But instead, the funds given to programs have stayed flat.

“This problem was obvious enough 20 years ago for ‘Sesame Street’ to feel the need to address this,” the host said. “And since we very much still have this problem, it’s clearly time to address it again.”

So Oliver decided to participate in an updated segment with his new network-mates, since the problem is still horrible.

NOW WATCH: The water in Flint, Michigan, has been poisoning children — now teachers are seeing the effects