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John Oliver brought on Elmo — yes, Elmo — so you'll pay attention to America's lead crisis

Twenty years ago, Sesame Street ran a special segment warning US children about the risks of lead. And 20 years later, Last Week Tonight's John Oliver brought the Sesame Street cast to his show to highlight America's continuing lead epidemic.

As Oliver told Elmo (who offered $1.76 from his piggy bank to help), America's lead problem is massive, and it will likely cost hundreds of millions of dollars each year to fix. And while that may seem like a big number, it could produce big returns.

"How can anyone say it's too expensive, huh?" Oscar the Grouch said. "Aren't they aware that according to a study in Environmental Health Perspectives, every dollar we spend on lead paint hazard control produces returns of at least 17 to 1?" (Oliver responded, "Wow, that is an astonishing level of economic insight coming from someone who lives in a trash can.")

A lot of attention has been going to Flint, Michigan, and its lead-contaminated water system. But the problem goes much further than one US city.

"We all care about lead in Flint now, which is great," Oliver said. "Unfortunately, the problem is not just in Flint. A USA Today network report found lead contamination in almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states." (To see your neighborhood's risk of elevated lead levels, head here.)

But water systems are only part of the problem. As one activist put it, "Kids are not going to get poisoned from a water fountain at their school. They're not. They're going to get poisoned from paint in their homes." (Oliver quipped, "I like how that starts off sounding reassuring but ends up even more terrifying. It's like saying, 'Look, that boa constrictor isn't going to bite you. It's not. It's just not. It's going to crush you to death with its body and then swallow you whole, because that's what it does.'")

As grim as the message is, it's true: At least 2.1 million homes have lead paint exposure risk and kids under 6 years old. As a result, more than half a million kids have elevated blood levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As Oliver explained, this is very dangerous: "Lead [is] the most dangerous thing in Led Zeppelin's name," Oliver said, "and I will remind you the other thing was zeppelin." He later added, "There is no safe level of lead. It's one of those things so dangerous you shouldn't even let a little bit inside you. … Even low-level exposure can lead to irreversible damage, like lower IQs, antisocial behavior, and reduced attention span."

America has made enormous strides in removing lead from the environment since the 1970s, taking much of it out of paint and gasoline, and leading to a massive drop in lead exposure since then. It "was a major public health victory," Oliver said. "You know that 18-year-old intern in your office who thinks he's so damn smart? Well, he probably is, because he was born after America's lead epidemic."

Still, the lead that got into the environment remains all over America — in the pipes, walls, and soil, particularly in poor, minority communities.

But the federal government has never taken on the kind of spending it would need to remove all the lead from the environment, leaving America not just with Flint but many cities like it around the country.


Watch: Flint's water crisis, explained in 3 minutes

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