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Health

Watch John Oliver and Sesame Street sing to raise awareness about America’s lead problem

On the latest episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver teamed up with the puppets of Sesame Street to shine a spotlight on the growing lead epidemic in the US.

Oliver, accompanied by Elmo, Rosita, and Oscar the Grouch took a deep dive into the issue, warning of the dangers of lead both in America’s water supply and paint.

He first acknowledged the crisis in Flint, Michigan and its lead-contaminated water, which has poisoned thousands of children under the age of six.

Lead poisoning affects young children the most. The neurotoxin accumulates in the body and can lead to lasting nervous system damage and brain disorders. Even low levels of lead can affect brain development, IQ, and attention spans.

Ingesting up to just 10 mg of lead can poison a child. Flint’s water had lead levels as high as 0.03 mg/L (the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency is 0.015 mg/L).

But the lead problem is much broader than one city. Oliver reported that lead has been found in almost 2,000 water systems across all 50 states.

Beyond water systems, lead exposure from paint is a risk for at least 2.1 million households with young children.

Over 20 years ago Sesame Street ran a segment teaching children about the risks of lead poisoning. The US continued to allow lead in paint and other products until 1971, even though most countries had banned the toxic chemical much earlier. This delay was because of lobbying by the lead industry. Since lead paint removal efforts were not fully funded by Congress, lead can still be found in homes throughout the US. As a result, more than half a million US children have elevated blood lead levels.  

The US has made progress in removing lead from the environment since then, but lead still remains in poor communities largely because efforts here were not as extensive.

Elmo and friends make the point that while lead removal is expensive, it’s well worth the cost. They called out US politicians for trying to save money in the short term at the expense of the health of its citizens.

Although it takes millions of dollars to remove lead, Oscar the Grouch cited a study in Environmental Health Perspectives that shows every dollar spent on lead hazard control “produces returns of at least 17-1.” Even though Oscar is a puppet that lives in a trash can, he seems to be doing more about the lead poisoning than many US lawmakers.

“Lead is still all around us: our pipes, our walls, and our air. We should do more to contain it, but first we all have to care,” Oliver sang as the puppets danced with him.

Watch the video above to learn more about the issue and help the message of “first we all have to care” reach the ears of politicians who are trying to reduce funding for lead control.