John Oliver Explains How Lead Poisoning Goes Far Beyond Flint

John Oliver
Despite outrage over Flint's water system, it's unlikely the government is going to take real steps to fight lead poisoning. YouTube

America was reintroduced to the issue of lead poisoning earlier this year when it was revealed that Flint, Michigan's toxic water system was infecting—and even killing—the city's children. A disgusted nation rallied in support of the working-class town, and many—including several politicians—called for Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to resign.

But as John Oliver pointed out on Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, lead poisoning goes far beyond Flint, and so does the negligence of lawmakers. Flint's was only one of an estimated 2,000 contaminated water systems spanning all 50 states, and the country contains an estimated 7.3 million lead service lines.

But the real danger is on the walls, not under the floorboards.

According to an American Healthy Homes survey in 2011, more than 2.1 million American homes have a lead dust hazard and a child younger than 6 years old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 535,000 children under 6 with elevated blood lead levels. A child only need ingest a minuscule amount of lead to cause their blood lead level to rise, which can lead to brain damage, decreased social skills or even death.

The problem is partially due to the lead industry in the United States, which promoted the use of lead throughout the 20th century while many other countries banned its use as early as the 1920s. America became aware of its dangers around the '70s and subsequently banned lead paint, leaded gas and other lead-based products. This is great, but it doesn't take the paint off the walls or pipes out of the ground.

How do we get the paint off the walls? A study conducted in 2000 estimated that it would cost $16.6 billion per year over the course of a decade to remove lead paint from America's houses. That's a lot of money. Much more affordable was a plan to at least mitigate its effects in the nation's low-income houses, the ones containing families who can't afford to move. That would have cost $230 million per year.

The problem is that the government allocates almost no money to lead removal, and funding has actually been steadily decreasing for the past 15 years. This is despite studies that have shown connections and the countless medical expenses that would be saved. A 2009 Environmental Healthy Perspectives study found that each dollar spent in lead paint hazard control would yield a return of $17 to $221.

But as has been proved time and time again, the government operates on the most superficial level possible. Lawmakers are outraged over Flint, but only because Flint is in the news and people are outraged. The threat of lead poisoning is an antiquated concept to legislators, and few are going to move to devote funding to an issue that impacts the lower classes almost exclusively. The only way the government is going to allocate money to combat lead poisoning is, sadly, for more people to die from it.