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Bathing water quality - Annual report, 2009 bathing season

11 June 2009
by eub2 -- last modified 11 June 2009

The annual bathing water report presented by the European Commission and the European Environment Agency on 10 June reveals that the large majority of bathing sites across the European Union met EU hygiene standards in 2008. During that bathing season some 96% of coastal bathing areas and 92% of bathing sites in rivers and lakes complied with minimum standards. The report provides useful water quality information for the millions of people who visit Europe's beaches every summer.


How does the European Union help to clean up Europe's beaches?

The European Commission provides the framework and the impetus for Member States to improve the quality of their bathing waters. It is the responsibility of Member States to fulfil European legislation and improve the quality of their beaches and fresh water bathing sites. Every year the Commission publishes a report outlining the quality of beaches throughout the European Union based on monitoring results the previous bathing season. The aim of the report is to make public the quality of bathing areas on the continent, thereby giving European citizens the possibility to assess for themselves where bathing may be safe.

What is the difference between guide and imperative values?

Data on bathing water is divided into three main categories, namely those that comply with mandatory values, those that comply with guide values and those that do not comply at all.

Compliance with mandatory values refers to the minimum water quality standards as laid out in the 1976 Bathing Water Directive. They will be fully replaced by 2015.

Compliance with the more stringent guide values means that beaches comply with the basic requirements of the directive and also with more robust standards of water quality.

And not complying means that those bathing areas do not even meet the mandatory requirements.

How can we infer the quality of bathing sites today on information from the previous season?

The aim of the report is not to provide up-to-date information on bathing areas, but rather to present water quality data for last year's bathing season compared to previous bathing seasons. This allows readers to study the trend in water quality of the bathing areas they may be considering, thereby making an informed choice based on the history of the data.

Is there current information on bathing water quality available?

The Bathing Water report corresponds to an enormous task by all Member States to continuously monitor and report the quality of their bathing areas. This enormous volume of data and analysis is then compiled by the European Environment Agency to present a holistic view of bathing water quality throughout the European Union.

The Bathing Water Directive does oblige Member States to maintain up to date information to provide the public with 'live time' status of bathing water quality, which is often displayed on beaches, radio, internet and television and teletext services.

What does it means when a site is insufficiently sampled? Is it still safe?

Bathing areas designated as insufficiently sampled are not necessarily unsafe for bathing. It simply indicates that not enough data has been collected from those sites to test for potentially harmful microbes.

Why are parameters such as enterovirus and salmonella no longer taken into account?

The 1976 Bathing Water Quality directive was agreed 30 years ago and science has moved on since then. The scientific world is no longer convinced of the need for enterovirus and salmonella parameters as health risk indicators. The World Health Organisation has confirmed the limited relevance of these two parameters as indicators of bathing water quality. These parameters are not part of the 2006 Bathing Water directive.

Some Members States have banned bathing in a number of bathing areas. Is this good practice to protect people's health?

In certain circumstances it may be justified for bathing areas to be banned, but this practice should not be used by Member States to systematically elude their legal obligation to clean up bathing sites which don't comply with minimum standards. These areas should be reopened once appropriate clean-up measures have been taken. Furthermore even when sites are banned they should be monitored and reported to the Commission.

Background information on the 2006 Bathing Water Directive


What was the Bathing Water Directive revised?

The 1976 directive served us well, but scientific knowledge and best practice from 1976 are now outdated. The new directive is based on new data on the effects of bacteriological contamination and over 25 years of implementing the 1976 directive. The aim was to move goalposts, but to bring the legislation into line with the latest scientific information and best practice in beach management and communication

What are the main elements of the 2006 directive?

The present directive was adopted nearly 30 years ago and needed to be updated to take account of scientific progress and current best practice. The essential elements for the new directive were:

  • update the parameters according to latest scientific knowledge

  • simplify the list of parameters;

  • improve the management of bathing sites;

  • improve information provided to the public;

  • streamline and increase the cost effectiveness of monitoring programmes.

What is the implementation timeline for the 2006 directive?

The new directive will be phased in gradually. During the transition period both directives will be in place simultaneously. At present the only legally binding instrument is the 1976 directive. The deadline for transposing the new directive into national law was 24 March 2008. The 1976 directive will be fully phased on 31 December 2014.

Which parameters were dropped from the 1976 bathing water directive?

The 1976 directive established 19 parameters according to the then prevailing background of knowledge and experience and existing problems with water quality. The new directive reduces the number of parameters from 19 to 2 key microbiological parameters, complemented by visual inspection such as algae bloom, and oil.

The parameters used for setting the standards were reviewed and streamlined, focusing on the most robust microbiological indicators which are the most relevant for human health. Parameters are based on the latest scientific evidence.

The new parameters are the following:

  • Escherichia Coli to replace the "Faecal coliforms" parameter

  • Intestinal Enterococci to replace the "Faecal streptococci" parameter

Other microbiological parameters such as total coliforms and enteroviruses were removed because according to the latest scientific evidence they were not considered to be the best indicators for assessing bathing water quality. The choice of microbiological parameters is based on available scientific evidence provided by epidemiological studies conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and health institutes in Germany, France and Netherlands.

Will the new directive impose extra costs on Member States?

Member States will only have to sample two parameters under the new directive rather than the 19 under the 1976 directive. However, the new directive requires Member States to draw up beach profiles and surveys, map discharges and make risk assessments.

What are the main features of the new bathing water directive?

The new directive lays down provisions for more sophisticated monitoring and classification of bathing water. It also provides for extensive public information and participation in line with the Ã…rhus Convention as well as for comprehensive and modern management measures:

  • The 2006 directive requires Member States to draw up a management plan for each site to minimise risks to bathers based on an assessment of the sources of contamination that are likely to affect it. Users of the site should be actively involved in developing the management plan. Where bathing sites have a history of poor water quality, preventive measures should be taken to close the bathing area when such conditions are forecasted. If the quality standards are not respected, remedial measures must be taken.

  • Information on a bathing site's quality classification, the results of water quality monitoring, the site's management plan and other relevant information is to be made readily available to the public, both through displays at the site and through the media and internet.

  • While the current directive requires regular monitoring of 19 pollutants or other parameters (for example water colour) the revised directive reduces this list to just two microbiological indicators of faecal contamination, E. Coli and Intestinal Enterococci. This simplification reflects recognition that faecal matter, for instance due to inadequate sewage treatment and pollution from animal waste, is the primary health threat to bathers.

  • The classification of water quality at a bathing site will be determined on the basis of a three-year trend instead of a single year's result as is currently the case. This means that the classification will be less susceptible to bad weather or one-off incidents. Where water quality is consistently good over a three-year period the frequency of sampling may be reduced, thereby cutting costs. It provides for the assessment of water quality on the basis of the set of water quality data compiled during the bathing seasons.

  • The directive requires "bathing profiles" to be drawn up describing the characteristics of the bathing water and identifying sources of pollution. The presence of pollution may result in needing to regularly review the status of the bathing, ban bathing there if needed and inform the public.

  • To ease the monitoring burden for Member States the new directive reduces monitoring frequencies if the quality of bathing areas proves to be constantly "good" or "excellent".

What is the relationship between the EU's bathing water policy and the Blue Flag campaign?

The Blue Flag is not a label awarded by the EU. The only link between the EU's bathing water policy and the Blue Flag is that the EU criteria are used as the basis for the Blue Flag's water quality criteria. However, the Blue Flag programme uses additional criteria beyond water quality for awarding the blue flag to specific beaches.

Blue flag

Source: European Commission