In his latest episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver asks some very pointed questions about lead.
Why, for example, did the US continue to allow paint laced with the toxic additive for decades after many countries banned it in the 1920s? (It wasn’t until the 1970s that the US banned lead paint and began to phase out leaded gas.) And why has the US Congress only set aside $110 million for lead removing programs this year, about the same amount that Americans spent watching Ride Along 2, a movie the New York Post called “as funny as lead poisoning”?
The comedian points out that while the contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan has gotten some attention, there are still an estimated 7.3 million lead service pipes across the US. And a survey found that 2.1 million homes in the US have both lead paint dust and a child under the age of 6, creating a threat to their health.
Testing old houses for lead and removing it nationwide would be expensive—as much as $16.6 billion per year for the next decade, by one estimate. Some halfway measures, like sealing in lead paint or performing regular clean-ups and focusing on low-income areas, would be more affordable, but still something to the tune of $230 million. Lead removal has never been funded at that level, Oliver points out, and that’s what needs to change.
As a starting point, Oliver says, the US government must simply care more about making the country a safer place for children, to motivate it to spend more on fixing this deadly problem. To underline this point, he joins some Sesame Street characters to sing a song: “Lead’s a really big problem / Seems like it’s everywhere,” Elmo sings. ”We can do more to fix it / But first, we all have to care.” (You can watch that part at the 14:20 mark.)