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Selling The Health Benefits Of Denver's Tap Water — After Flint

A group of community leaders from Denver's Westwood neighborhood toured the Waterton Canyon Reservoir in late October, to learn how the city's water is filtered and treated.

The crisis of contaminated water in Flint, Mich., is making a public health message like this one harder to get across: In most communities, the tap water is perfectly safe. And it is much healthier than sugary drinks.

That's a message that Dr. Patty Braun, a pediatrician and oral health specialist at Denver Health, spends a lot of time talking to her patients about.

"Over half of kindergartners have cavities," Braun says, and the Latino kids she treats seem especially prone to tooth decay. She also notes that more than half of the Latino families she sees don't drink tap water. And if the kids don't drink tap water, she says, they don't get the fluoride in it to protect their teeth.

Instead of tap water, many children gulp down sodas or juice — a double whammy that can mean more cavities and weight gain.

In some families, Braun says, a stigma against water from the faucet has been passed on through generations. And some recent immigrants, she says, hesitate to drink it based on prior experience with contaminated tap water in their native countries.

"If you're used to living in a place where you would normally not want to drink the water because it's not safe, then that's what you're going to bring over to any other new setting," says Braun.

Recently, the Delta Dental of Colorado Foundation partnered with a community group called Westwood Unidos in a campaign to let Latino communities in Colorado know the tap water is safe and clean. Denver Water, the state's largest water provider, is onboard, too.

Once the water supplier realized some people were afraid the tap water was not safe, "we felt a strong responsibility to go out and to communicate otherwise," says Jessica Mahaffey, a marketing specialist with the utility.

Last fall, for example, Mahaffey led a tour of Denver Water's infrastructure for about 40 people from the largely Hispanic Westwood neighborhood. The group included community leaders, pastors, and educators.

Mahaffey showed the group the reservoir at Waterton Canyon, which is filled by melting mountain snow. She then took them to a water treatment plant, so they could see how that water is filtered and tested. "Sometimes it's much easier to show than it is to tell," she says.

Westwood resident Gaby Medina says that because of what she's learned, she's had a change of heart. Like a lot of her neighbors, she didn't trust the water when she came to U.S. from Mexico more than a decade ago.

"Initially, yes, I was hesitant," Medina says, speaking through an interpreter. "I did not realize the tap water was OK to drink."

But she says she started "experimenting," trying the tap water. Then her dentist suggested she encourage her kids to drink it, saying it would be good for their teeth.

Now she's an evangelist for the benefits of tap water. She spreads the message in schools and churches around her community as a promotora, a health educator, with the Cavities Get Around campaign. Being a part of it, "makes me really proud," Medina says.

The advice to drink Denver's tap water includes caveats. Some homes in the city that were built before the mid-1950s still have lead pipes, Denver Water acknowledges. The utility and Medina advise customers in these older homes to run tap water until it runs cold to flush any lead-containing water from pipes, and to always use cold water for drinking, cooking, and preparing baby formula.

Braun says people who have any doubts about the pipes in their homes should consult their local or state health departments.

At Medina's home in Westwood, she shows off a large water dispenser made of glass that she now brings to community events. She fills it with cold tap water, ice and slices of fruit. That water has now replaced the kind of sugary beverage that used to be served. Medina's daughter, 10-year-old Andrea, brings a water bottle with a slice of citrus in it to school with her. And the idea is catching on with her friends.

"My friends started taking them because it doesn't have sugar," Andrea says, "and water is, like, the most important thing of your body."

Andrea's 11-year-old brother Greg says that since his mom started working on what he calls "the water thing," he no longer worries about the tap water.

"It comes fresh from the mountains and it's also refreshing," says Greg. "Now, I drink water more often than any other drink."

As a pediatrician, Braun hopes other kids will do the same — despite the news from Flint.

"We hope that this doesn't discourage people from drinking safe water from their tap. It's tragic what's happened in Flint," she says, "but we want other communities to know that water [from Denver's taps] is safe to drink.'

This story is part of NPR's reporting partnership with Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2016 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit Colorado Public Radio.

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