“We’ve heard a lot about lead over the past year due to the horrific events in Flint, Michigan,” said John Oliver, leading off his main segment on Last Week Tonight.
Indeed, the crisis in Flint has been declared a federal emergency, with experts claiming that roughly 8,000 to 9,000 kids under age 6 may have suffered permanent brain damage after they were exposed to high levels of lead in the city’s water. Oliver then threw to clips of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), the Oversight & Government Reform Committee chair, decrying the lack of action in Flint in Congress.
Unfortunately, America’s lead problem isn’t limited to Flint. A recent USA Today Network report found lead contamination in close to 2,000 additional water systems across all 50 states. There are 7.3 million lead service lines in the U.S., but water isn’t even our biggest threat of lead poisoning—rather, it’s ingesting lead paint dust. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are an estimated 2,144,000 homes with a lead dust hazard affecting children under 6, and the CDC further estimates that 535,000 children between ages 1-5 have elevated lead levels in their blood. Since a child can be poisoned to death by only 10 mg of pure lead, ingesting small amounts is highly dangerous.“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,” joked Oliver, before getting serious: “Even low-level exposure can lead to irreversible damage, like lower IQs, antisocial behavior, and reduced attention span.”
Oliver then threw to a lead prevention video produced by Sesame Street way back in 1996—a program that then aired on PBS, a government-funded network Senate Republicans tried to defund in 2011—which attempted to communicate the dangers of lead exposure.
“If lead paint is so dangerous, why the fuck is there still so much of it in houses where kids live?” asked Oliver.Indeed, while other parts of the Western world turned their backs on lead, the lead industry engaged in aggressive lobbying efforts on behalf of their dangerous product in the ’40s and ’70s. In the late 1970s, however, Dr. Herbert Needleman, a pediatrician and child psychiatrist, studied the baby teeth of healthy schoolchildren in two Boston suburbs. Dr. Needleman found that children with higher levels of lead in their teeth—who had never “been identified as having any problems with lead”—had lower IQs, poor language function, and poor attention spans.So the U.S. finally started banning lead, including in paint and gas. There was just one problem. “We were still left with all the lead that was already there—in our pipes and our walls,” said Oliver.
HUD estimated that the cost of testing for and ultimately removing lead from all houses nationwide was $16.6 billion per year, every year from 2001-10. Meanwhile, a partial lead removal plan came with a price tag of $230 million per year—but even that wasn’t fully funded. HUD’s Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes received $175 million in government funding in 2001—thanks to a Republican-controlled House led by pedophile Dennis Hastert—and it’s been steadily going down since. This year, it was appropriated just $110 million by a Republican-run Congress.
“That’s a little more than Americans spent on Ride Along 2, a movie which, incidentally, the New York Post described as ‘…as funny as lead poisoning...’” Oliver quipped.
Furthermore, HUD was only able to award 32 of 79 lead abatement grants it received in 2015, meaning “many Americans still live in homes with lead in them,” and it’s mostly people in lower socioeconomic circumstances—just like the people of Flint.
The crazy thing is that lead regulation is cost-effective. Oliver cited a UPI study showing “a correlation between decreasing lead levels and a fall in crime,” while another study by Environmental Health Perspectives alleged that “each dollar invested in lead paint hazard control results in a return of $17-$221” in overall societal benefits. “You would think that our members of Congress would be onboard with doing more to fight lead poisoning. After all, you remember how angry they were about all those kids who got poisoned in Flint, right?” said Oliver, before cutting to that same earlier footage of Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Rep. Tim Walberg (R-MI), and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) denouncing the Flint crisis. “Concerned?” Oliver continued. “That’s what makes it so frustrating that last year, all of those men voted for a bill that would have reduced the already low funding for HUD-led abatement programs by $35 million, amounting to a 32 percent cut. And the truth is, if you cut funding like that, a whole lot more children might get poisoned.” Thankfully, said Oliver, those cuts didn’t go through—but the funding stayed flat. Also, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have had major funding problems in recent years as well, with some Republican lawmakers—including presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—desiring to wipe out the EPA altogether.
Cut to an incensed Oliver: “I thought poisoned children was something we were all justifiably outraged by?”