HBO’s John Oliver weighs in on Flint water crisis, lead

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Satirist John Oliver this weekend weighed in on Flint’s water crisis and the dangers of lead in American homes.

The bespectacled British host of the HBO weekly TV show, “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” got some help from Elmo and the other puppets who live on Sesame Street. His show airs at 11 p.m. on Sundays.

“Lead — the most dangerous thing in Led Zeppelin’s name, and I will remind you the other thing was zeppelin,” Oliver said to laughs. “We’ve heard a lot about lead in the last year due to the horrific events in Flint, Michigan. Flint has become a city whose very name evokes disaster, like Benghazi or Waco or Smurf Village.”

Flint’s water contamination crisis began when it started drawing water from the Flint River in April 2014. The corrosive water leached lead from the city’s pipes into the system.

“Flint was a perfect storm of incompetence from start to finish,” he said. “We all care about lead in Flint now, which is great. Unfortunately, the problem is not just in Flint.”

In the segment, Oliver took a shot at Washington politicians for their response to Flint’s crisis. “With all the bureaucratic (expletive) involved, politicians were lining up to be vocally outraged,” he said.

His report also said a huge threat the country faces is the lead paint in American homes. To emphasize his point, he showed a video Sesame Street, the children’s educational television show, produced decades ago to warn children about the dangers of lead in their homes. It featured a puppet rock music band called the Lead Police, modeled after ’80s English group The Police.

“That video was made 20 years ago and it’s enough to make you wonder if lead paint is so dangerous, why the (expletive) is there still so much of it houses where kids live?” he asked. “That’s a good question. Many countries banned it in the 1920s because we knew then it was dangerous. But instead of joining them, America decided to put lead basically everywhere.”

Because lead continues to be such a big problem, Oliver’s show created an updated version of the video. In it, he meets up with Elmo and Rosita.

“A lot of places still contain lead paint,” he told the Muppets. “We need to care more than we currently do, so we spend enough money on containing it.”

The problem is people are worried the problem, which will cost hundreds of millions to address, is too expensive to fix, Oliver explained to the Muppets.

To which Oscar the Grouch popped up from his trash can and said: “That’s ridiculous!”

“How can anyone say it’s too expensive?” he asked. “Aren’t they aware ... every dollar we spend on lead paint has returns of at least 17 to 1?”

Oliver quipped: “Wow! That’s an astonishing level of economic insight coming from someone who lives in a trash can.”

Oscar retorted that his can is rent-controlled and he’s had it since the 1960s.

The four finished the segment by singing: “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.”


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