It’s saying something when a problem gets so bad that a series of giant puppets on a very long-running kids’ show have to make the same point about it twice in the course of 20 years. Yesterday on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the late night host did a nearly 20-minute segment on America’s lead poisoning problem, and enlisted Sesame Street characters to help him get his message across. (They seem to impact American children — so perhaps we American adults likewise need things spelled out for us by large furry things with googly eyes and cookie addictions.)
Oliver begins the segment by going over the goings-on in Michigan that led to the water crisis in Flint – where corrosive water from the Flint River led lead in old pipes to seep into drinking water. This eventually sparked fury throughout the country over the conditions in the city and the governmental failure that allowed for them — but not before anywhere from 6,000 to 12,000 children were exposed. “We all care about lead in Flint now, which is great” says Oliver, before noting that there are reportedly 2000 other lead-contaminated water systems across the country.
But Oliver states that the biggest danger is actually in the continued problem of homes that were coated in lead paint in the past — and there’s an estimate of up to 2,144,000 homes with hazardous dust from the paint. He emphasizes that lead is so “dangerous you shouldn’t even let a little bit of it inside you — much like heroin or Jeremy Piven.”
Oliver explains that Sesame Street once produced a video (so long ago that it topically spoofed The Police) to help kids understand how to avoid getting lead poisoning while living in hazardous homes: “Wash your hands before you eat/Stay away from peeling paint,” the Sesame Street characters chanted.
After going very deeply into America’s history of lead usage (while other countries were already shying away from it), Oliver then brings us back to the present, where legislation for lead abatement has seemingly plateaued within Congress. He juxtaposes this fact with the concern Congress expressed over the crisis in Flint. “That’s what makes it so frustrating — that last year, all of those men [Rep. Mark Meadows, Rep. Tim Walberg, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, all of whom were featured mourning what happened in Flint] voted for a bill that would have reduced the already low funding for lead abatement programs by $35,000,0000, amounting to a 32% cut.” The cuts didn’t go through, he says, but the budgets remained the same.
“I thought poisoned children was something we were all justifiably outraged by; this problem was obvious enough 20 years ago for Sesame Street to feel the need to address it, Oliver says. And that’s exactly what he has them do, again: