"There is no safe level of lead," John Oliver warned on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "It's one of those things so dangerous you shouldn't even let a little bit inside you, much like heroin or Jeremy Piven." The host took a deep dive on this serious issue, examining the dangers of lead found in America's water supply (in both Flint, Michigan and beyond) and homes with paint dust.
Oliver focused first on Flint, reminding viewers that thousands of children under age six have been exposed to lead. But the problem extends far beyond city lines: In March, USA Today reported that excessive lead levels were found in "almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states."
While the solution – eliminating lead pipes – seems like an obvious fix, the problem is complex. America has approximately 7.3 million lead service lines, many of which are buried, and some studies show that partial replacement could cause even more harm.
Oliver also expanded his report to include a more prevalent threat: ingesting lead paint dust. An estimated 2.1 million American homes contain both a lead dust hazard and a child under six, with the CDC estimating over a half-million children between ages one and five have elevated blood lead levels. "Lead is almost as much of a scourge in young children's homes as Frozen merchandise," he cracked.
Even low-level exposure has been linked to lower IQs, antisocial behavior and reduced attention spans. In the 1970s, these findings urged the government to regulate lead in paint and gas, which resulted in a decrease in average blood lead levels. But we're still left with lead in pipes and walls — and the cost of testing and removal is daunting.
"Most people with lead problems are stuck in homes they can't leave, trying their best to avoid danger – which may sound familiar, because it's the plot of every fucking horror movie ever made," Oliver half-joked.
Lead abatement is expensive but cost effective: studies have shown correlations between lead levels and falling crime. But Oliver emphasized the obvious, and most crucial benefit: preventing the death of children. To iron home his point, the comedian visited some friends some Sesame Street – Elmo, Rosita and Oscar the Grouch – to sing an upbeat tune: "Lead is still all around us: our pipes, our walls and our air," Oliver crooned. "We should do more to contain it, but first we all have to care."In Flint, Michigan, the feds and the state are investigating what one water expert calls one of the greatest American drinking-water disasters he's ever seen.