Murky claims about EU bathing water policy


May 9, 2013
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Following an article published in The Telegraph, “Beaches to be blacklisted for swimming under new EU rules

We would like to make it crystal clear that the EU does not “blacklist” beaches and EU laws do not prevent anyone from swimming anywhere. What the EU does do is highlight to people the quality and possible health dangers of waters where they may choose to bathe. The system is designed to allow people  to check water standards when choosing a holiday, day trip or even a daily swimming location.

The article claims, “European Union rules are posing a threat to the chances of enjoying a healthy dip in the sea at more than 50 of England’s most treasured beaches, as they are at risk of being blacklisted as unsafe for swimming”. This is an interesting sentence as it suggests that the European Bathing Water Directive (EBWD) is somehow more concerned with hampering enjoyment as opposed to highlighting whether waters are healthy to swim in. The insinuation here is that presenting the facts to the public poses “a threat to enjoying a healthy dip”. “Enjoyment” is of course relative but it is arguable that most people take a certain amount of joy in not risking a bout of gastroenteritis by making informed decisions about the waters in which they choose to bathe.

The EU has had rules to safeguard public health and clean up bathing waters since 1976 and the Blue Flag indicating water quality is now a familiar feature at the seaside. The article acknowledges that since the EBWD came into being nearly four decades ago that much of the sewage outflow that caused pollution has been dramatically reduced. In 2006, the rules were updated and simplified, with a more proactive approach now being taken to inform the public about bathing water quality, which now falls into one of four clear categories –  ‘poor’, ‘sufficient’, ‘good’ and ‘excellent’. This new approach builds on scientific knowledge on protecting public health and the environment. Certain parameters have changed and, for example, national authorities now have to continuously monitor both E-coli and faecal streptococci levels in all bathing waters and keep the public informed accordingly.

The most recent changes in EU bathing water law which have been agreed by the UK government, now give a truer picture of the long-term quality of the water. Under the new system, the classification depends on long-term (three- or four-year) trend, instead of a single year’s result as was previously the case. This makes the new procedure more realistic, reliable and fairer than its predecessor. It also makes classification less vulnerable to being skewed by one-off incidents such as those arising from bad weather or other similar exceptional situations that can cause pollution problems for a few days. In these cases national authorities must act immediately to lower the health risk to bathers, but they can exclude such events from their overall assessment of bathing water quality.

To learn more about EU bathing water policy.

To check water standards at bathing locations throughout the EU.

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2 Responses to “Murky claims about EU bathing water policy”

  1. jamesthorogood says:

    The EU consistently receives negative press, and, as analysis of the articles here show, claims made often use recontextualised info, are unfounded or just not true. The recent UKIP success demonstrates the real electoral consequences of negative press and in the longer term potentially threatens the UKs membership status.
    Time for serious action. I appreciate I’m unaware of efforts the Commission is making, although its evident that a significantly more aggressive strategy is needed. The EU needs to provide a consistent easily understood message through every possible channel and respond aggressively to instances of Euro-myths so that journalists and editors who print this stuff know what to expect.

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  2. daviddarcy says:

    Dear James, We do respond …and often aggressively, including through PCC….but no easy route to redress. Distortion by certain media on certain subjects – not just EU – fact of UK life, I am afraid.

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