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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 January 2006, 12:32 GMT
EU plans sea change for bathers
By Alix Kroeger
BBC European Union reporter, Strasbourg

The European Parliament has voted for tougher water cleanliness standards at Europe's beaches.

The new bathing water directive will also streamline water quality testing and make results known quickly, both at bathing areas themselves and online.

Children will be adults before the directive fully takes effect
It will introduce three categories for ranking clean water - "excellent", "good" and "sufficient" - from 2015 onwards.

By then, EU countries will have to ensure that all their bathing areas reach at least the "sufficient" standard - a step up from the existing mandatory level.

Once EU environment ministers have given the directive final approval, EU member states have two years to make it part of national law.

Sewage threat

Bathing water tests are based on the risk of someone who dips their head in the water getting an illness - an upset stomach, for example, or an ear infection.

Under the current rules, that risk must not exceed 12 to 15%. The revised directive will reduce that to 8% for the "sufficient" category, about 5% for the "good" category and 3% for "excellent".

The new test will cut the number of contaminants measured from 19 to just two, e. coli and intestinal enterococci.

These are the most common causes of infection, and they also serve as indicators of other germs which may be present.

Beaches may not benefit from investment in improving water quality
Richard Hardy, Surfers Against Sewage
Both are found in sewage, which the European Commission says is the main source of water pollution, along with industrial waste.

Most EU bathing areas come up to the existing mandatory standard, although coastal beaches do significantly better than inland waters.

Across the EU in 2004, the last year for which full figures are available, 96.7% of coastal areas and 89.4% of freshwater zones reached this basic level.

The figures for the tougher "recommended" standard - which a beach must meet to qualify for Blue Flag status - were lower: 88.5% for beaches, and just 66.4% for inland bathing areas.

'Get out of jail free'

The pressure group, Surfers Against Sewage, which lobbies against the discharge of raw or partially treated sewage, broadly supports the new directive.

Wet weather can have a bad effect on water quality
However, its campaign director, Richard Hardy, describes the new "sufficient" category as a "get out of jail free" card.

"This category pretty much mimics the old water quality standard and stops bathing waters from failing," he says. As a result, "these beaches may not benefit from investment in improving water quality."

Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that a number of British beaches would nonetheless fail today to meet the "sufficient" standard.

In 2005, nine of the UK's 559 beaches failed to reach the mandatory level. By contrast, the Agency says, between 23 and 56 bathing waters would have failed to meet the new "sufficient" standard, judging from the results of water quality tests between 2002 and 2005.

In the long run, it is possible that the "sufficient" category will be phased out. Article 14 of the directive asks the European Commission to consider this idea, and other possible changes to the standards, by 2020.

Online data

Under the new legislation - the first update of the bathing water directive since it was first introduced in 1976 - bathers will be guaranteed access to the most recent test results on the internet.

They will also be able to read a general description of the beach, information about possible sources of pollution and reports of any recent pollution incidents.

Bathing areas will also have to post standard signs indicating water quality, throughout the bathing season.

To iron out any one-off discrepancies in testing, from bad weather or a single incident, sites will be classified according to their results over three or four years, instead of one year at a time as now.

If a beach is classified as "poor" for five years running, and efforts to rectify the situation have failed, this could lead to a permanent bathing prohibition.

Graphic showing UK beach results
Excellent (or Recommended): Up to 5% risk of sickness after immersing head
Good (or Mandatory): 5% to 15% risk
Poor (or Fail): More than 15% risk
Excellent: Up to 3% risk of sickness after immersing head
Good: 3% to 5% risk
Sufficient (which EU states must reach): 5% to 8% risk
Poor: More than 8% risk
Graphic looks at 544 out of UK total of 559 coastal beaches
Future method results (2002-2005 data set) are worst-case scenario
Results could be improved by predicting pollution incidents

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