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

Originally published on February 21, 2016 10:39 pm

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 2017 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit Colorado Public Radio.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

The water crisis in Flint, Mich., is making some public health messages harder to get across. One is in most communities tap water is perfectly safe to drink. In fact, officials in the city of Denver worry that avoiding tap water is causing health problems. John Daley from Colorado Public Radio reports from Denver on a campaign to get Latinos to drink the city water.

JOHN DALEY, BYLINE: At a downtown Denver clinic, a skinny 7-year-old with straight black hair is getting a pair of fillings.

PATTY BRAUN: It's OK. Want a little break?

DALEY: Dr. Patty Braun is a pediatrician and oral health specialist at Denver Health. She talks to the girl about what she drinks.

BRAUN: What do you think about drinking the tap water instead of bottled water?

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: Um.

BRAUN: I spent a lot of time teaching my families that water's safe to drink, that Denver tap water is safe, clean and convenient.

I want you to drink that tap water, and I drink it, too.

UNIDENTIFIED GIRL: OK.

DALEY: That lesson matters for two reasons. Drinking tap water provides fluoride to protect kids' teeth. Second, instead of tap water, many of them gulp down sugary drinks. That could mean more cavities and weight gain. This is especially common among Latinos, says Braun.

BRAUN: Over half of kindergartners have cavities, and Latino kids are more likely to have cavities than non-Latino kids.

DALEY: She says recent immigrants may hesitate to drink tap water because it's not safe in their native country. In some cases, it's a stigma that's been passed on for generations.

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

DALEY: She says the Flint, Mich., water crisis does complicate the situation. But it was already a challenge to get across the message to some that Denver's tap water is safe. That's why she's part of a campaign encouraging Latinos to trust the city's water. Denver Water is the state's largest water provider and also part of the campaign, says its marketing specialist Jessica Mahaffey.

JESSICA MAHAFFEY: It was a surprising revelation to us, but once we discovered that these concerns existed, we felt a strong responsibility to go out and to communicate otherwise.

DALEY: This fall, Mahaffey partnered with community group Westwood Unidos to tour Denver Water's facilities. They invited about 40 people from the largely Hispanic Westwood neighborhood. The group included leaders, pastors and educators. She says, even before Flint, they'd heard...

MAHAFFEY: Rumors that they've had within their community that the water was unsafe to drink. Many of them boil the tap water or buy bottled water. And so they just had a lot of concerns and a lot of questions about the quality and safety of their water.

DALEY: Mahaffey says she showed the group the reservoir at Waterton Canyon, filled by melting mountain snow. She then took them to a treatment plan so they could see how that water is filtered and tested.

MAHAFFEY: Sometimes it's much easier to show than it is to tell

DALEY: Westwood resident Gaby Medina took the tour. Like a lot of her neighbors, she didn't trust the water when she immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico more than a decade ago.

GABY MEDINA: (Through interpreter) Initially, yes, I didn't know it was OK to drink the water.

DALEY: Now she's a full-on tap water convert. In fact, she's spreading the word in schools and churches. She's now a health educator with the Cavities Get Around campaign

MEDINA: (Through interpreter) That makes me really proud.

DALEY: Medina leads me to the kitchen to show me a large glass water dispenser she now brings to community events. She fills it with tap water and slices up fruit.

MEDINA: (Speaking Spanish).

DALEY: That water has now replaced the sugary beverages she used to serve. Medina's 10-year-old daughter now proudly brings to school a water bottle with a slice of citrus and her 11-year-old son Greg says his fears about tap water have evaporated.

GREG MEDINA: Now I drink the water more often than any other drink.

DALEY: Pediatrician Patty Braun hopes, despite the Flint news, others will do the same.

BRAUN: We hope that this doesn't discourage people from drinking safe water from their tap. It's tragic what's happened in Flint, but we want other communities to know that water is safe to drink.

DALEY: She says those who have any doubts should consult their local or state health department. For NPR News, I'm John Daley.

WERTHEIMER: This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.