Amid the public outcry over contaminated water in places like Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, a health initiative in Denver is hoping to dispel the idea that tap water is dangerous. And the main group they are focusing on is Latinos.
The campaign, sponsored primarily by the health insurer Delta Dental of Colorado, began before the water crisis in Flint made headlines, but it has taken on a new urgency as officials have run up against obstacles in reaching out to Latino immigrants wary of turning on the tap.
“People don’t drink the water because they come from parts of Mexico or other countries — say, in South America — where they don’t trust it,” Gabriela Medina – an educator for Westwood Unidos, a Denver community group and a partner of Delta Dental in the tap water campaign, which is called Cavities Get Around – told the New York Times. “They think it’s the same here.”
Medina said that many immigrants from Latin America have an ingrained notion that tap water is unsafe to drink, and instead buy bottled water or sugary soft drinks.
Mexicans guzzle on average 665 Coca-Colas a year, more than people in any other country, according to company figures from 2009, and they also drink more bottled water than anyone else, according to the International Bottled Water Association.
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“We’ve been told: If you don’t drink Coca-Cola, you’re poor,” Medina told the Times. “That’s wrong. You’ll look poor if you have no teeth.”
Part of the campaign to educate immigrants about tap water is informing them of the health benefits of tap over bottled water.
Denver, like many other communities across the U.S.adds fluoride to its drinking water to improve dental health. Fluoride, which is generally not in bottled water, strengthens the teeth of infants and children and decreases the risk of tooth decay in older adults.
Fifty-five percent of Latino children in Colorado have cavities by age 5, compared with 32 percent of white children.
While experts say that programs like Cavities Get Around are helpful, some warn that it shouldn’t be implemented on a national level as other communities – Flint and Newark, for two – have water that's unsafe to drink. In Denver, people who live in older homes are advised to flush their water at least once a day to avoid contamination from lead pipes.
“There are some communities where that would be really problematic,” Marc Gorelick, a pediatrician and top administrator at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, told the Times. “As a strategy, it makes sense, but it has to be combined with knowledge of the local water system.”