Lead poisoning has been big news for decades now. But the issue is on the forefront of many people’s minds after water in Flint, Michigan was recently discovered to contain dangerous levels of lead after the city stopped sourcing its water from Lake Huron and began sourcing it from the Flint River in 2013. John Oliver tackled the crisis on Last Week Tonight, focusing much of his segment on how the state knew about the issue and chose to do nothing, as well as the devastating fact that 9,000 children have since been exposed to lead.
Here are some of Oliver’s most notable remarks and eye-opening facts from the segment.
1. Showing a photo of elected leaders, literally, toasting what they considered a cost-saving victory after the Flint water switch, Oliver noted that what they really should have been saying while patting each other on the back was, “I’ll see you in hell.” Following the crisis, every politician (of course) jumped on board the “America shouldn’t be poisoning its children because this isn’t a third world country where that sort of thing happens” bandwagon, to which Oliver replied, “There’s only one poison thousands of Americans should consume and that’s Mountain Dew Code Red.”
2. The problem isn’t just in Flint, Oliver reminds us. Almost 2,000 additional water systems affecting 50 states have been found to contain traces of lead. And we can’t rip out every lead pipe in the country — there are far too many out there and we don’t know where they all are.
Furthermore: “Even if we do replace all lead pipes that still wouldn’t come close to stopping lead poisoning,” Oliver said. Why is that? Well, according to the CDC, the biggest threat of lead poisoning to children comes from ingesting lead paint dust — 535,000 children aged 1 to 5 years have elevated lead blood levels.
3. After calling the poisoning of children a “big, f***ing deal,” Oliver offered a light moment. “There is no safe level of lead,” he said. “It’s one of those things that’s so dangerous you shouldn’t even let a little bit inside of you… like heroin or Jeremy Piven.”
4. Who knew? Sesame Street has always been ahead of its time — 20 years ago, the show’s most famous cast of characters got together to warn children about washing their hands and staying away from peeling paint in their house so they would lessen their risk of ingesting lead:
5. The cost of getting rid of/maintaining lead is shockingly high — $16.6 billion per year every year from 2001 to 2010. After the Flint crisis, it was determined that the estimated cost to replace all lead pipes in the U.S. would be $300 billion.
6. Thank HBO for yet another awesome Oliver/Sesame Street collaboration. The host asked Elmo, Rosita and Oscar the Grouch for assistance in explaining to the world why it’s so important that we take care of each other and why so many innocent children deserve to have clean drinking water.
“A lot of places still contain lead paint,” Oliver explained to Elmo and Rosita. “We need to care more than we currently do so that we spend enough money to contain it.” Always the gentleman, Elmo immediately offered up the $1 bill in his piggy bank before delivering these words of wisdom: “Just because something’s hard doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
Let’s hope those in power choose to listen to Elmo because a lot of them could use a Muppet’s advice right about now.