EU laws do not prevent anyone from swimming anywhere, but who wants to swim in poo?
As this year’s EU’s annual bathing water report is being prepared we face the perennial media stories of the EU possibly “banning” or “blacklisting” of beaches. Let’s be clear, the EU does not “ban” beaches. What the EU does do is highlight the quality and possible health dangers of waters where individuals or their families may choose to bathe.
A recent Daily Mail article widely copied and circulated in social media, claimed “EU to ban our beaches” adding that “dozens of British beaches will be off-limits for swimmers”.
There are numerous inaccuracies in this article:
1. the EU does not “ban” beaches
2. EU laws do not prevent anyone from swimming anywhere
3. there are no new bathing water laws, but, above all, this is a classic case of shooting the messenger. The main recent change in EU bathing water law (agreed, as usual, by the UK government) is that it now gives a truer picture of the long-term quality of the water. If a problem is found with that quality, the problem does not lie in EU law – it lies quite simply in the quality of the water. People have a right to make informed decisions around that quality.
EU bathing water rules
The EU has had rules to safeguard public health and clean up bathing waters since 1976. In 2006, the rules were updated and simplified, and a more proactive approach is now being taken to inform the public about bathing water quality, which now falls into one of four categories – ‘poor’, ‘sufficient’, ‘good’ and ‘excellent’.
This new approach builds on scientific knowledge on protecting health and the environment. Certain parameters have changed and, for example, the authorities now have to inform the public about levels of both E-coli and faecal streptococci in all bathing waters (the thinking here is simple: who would knowingly choose to swim in… poo?). 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 and reliable than its predecessor. Importantly, it also makes classification less vulnerable to being skewed by bad weather or one-off incidents.
If occasional heavy rain or similar exceptional situations causes pollution problems for a few days, 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.
The UK, like all EU member states, monitors the quality of its waters, and the Commission is not expecting any major changes in the number of beaches that meet quality requirements this year, but if there are changes – wouldn’t you rather be informed of them, before you decide to get in the water?
The EU’s annual Bathing Water report is due for publication in May.