Are the bathing waters safe?

Not all bathroom areas meet desirable quality standards. Water from beaches, rivers and reservoirs is not always suitable for bathing. Next, we will explain how the excellence of these aquatic areas is evaluated.

Sometimes we can venture to bathe on a beach without easy access, without services or lifeguards, and even where bathing is not recommended. We do this hoping to find an almost virgin cove and thinking that it will be less crowded and cleaner than the beaches crowded with tourists. In this report we will explain whether the water we use for bathing is of good quality. In addition, we will provide information on how to identify the least polluted waters.

According to the recent ‘Bathing Water Quality National Report’ published by the Ministry of Health in 2021, it is reported that an impressive 96.6% of the water used for bathing in Spain meets the minimum quality standards considered “sufficient”. Furthermore, it is highlighted that a remarkable 87.4% meet the highest requirements and are classified as “excellent” in terms of quality. Despite this, it was found that 7.8% of the areas intended for bathing only reached the category of “good”, while 1.2% obtained the classification of “insufficient” and 2.2% could not be classified due to the impossibility of measure your level of contamination. This rating is a comprehensive analysis of water quality at 2,261 locations, including beaches, bathing coves and inland water sources such as rivers, rock pools and lakes. The main objective is to determine whether these waters comply with the surveillance and regulatory standards established by the European Union.

“The quality of bathing water is a environmental health indicator of our coastal and inland waters, with relevance in Public Health and in the tourist and economic development potential of our country. National and European regulations aim to guarantee adequate water quality for the population to use the bathroom, thus protecting the health of citizens”, says Pilar Aparicio, general director of Public Health at the Ministry of Health, in the report.

How is the water tested?

In Spain, the bathing season runs from May to September in coastal areas (except in the Canary Islands, where it lasts almost the entire year), and from June to September in inland waters. During this period, monthly collections of water are carried out to ensure its quality and safety. During the summer season, at least eight water samples will be taken.

In the laboratory, analyzes are carried out to determine the quality of the water. Specifically, the presence of two fecal bacteria is evaluated: intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli. These bacteria are measured in “colony forming units” (CFU) per 100 milliliters of water.

⛔ When bathing is prohibited

When in coastal and coastal areas Enterococci levels exceed 185 CFU/100 ml and E. Coli levels exceed 500 CFU/100 ml, the water quality is considered “insufficient”. In these circumstances, it is recommended to avoid bathing. These bacteria can come from different sources, such as urban areas where human feces are found, agricultural activities that use manure or livestock farms where animal feces are generated.

In an ideal world, it would be desirable to prevent faecal bacteria from contaminating bathing water. Unfortunately, however, this is not always possible in practice. In some cases, extreme weather events such as droughts, heavy rains or overflows, as well as the collapse of treatment plants and wastewater management systems due to high tourist influx, can cause failures to control pollution at its source. When the presence of fecal matter is detected in the water of a beach, lake or river, it is necessary to temporarily close the area and warn bathers to avoid swimming there.

The most polluted beaches

In 2016, a team of researchers from the University of Alicante, led by Dr. Luis Aragonés, from the Department of Civil Engineering, carried out a study on water quality in coastal areas of Spain. The results were published in the journal Science of the Total Environment and were based on a sample that included 1,392 beaches. A recent study analyzed the presence of fecal bacteria on different beaches and its possible relationship with climatic and environmental conditions. The results revealed that sandy beaches are more likely to harbor these bacteria compared to shingle beaches. In addition, the impact of waves and high tides further aggravate pollution in these areas.

The proliferation of bacteria is not only influenced by factors such as hours of sunlight, temperature, water salinity and rain, but there are also other aspects that can play an important role in this process.“From the investigation it can be deduced that the hours of light and, therefore, the action of ultraviolet radiation are the most important factors in the elimination of bacteria, and may even compensate for the lower purification of wastewater. All these factors that directly or indirectly cause this radiation not to act or to a lesser extent, contribute to the increase in bacterial concentrations”, point out the researchers. Cantabrian beaches, with fewer sunny days, more rain and lower water temperature, tend to experience higher waves and tides. Due to these climatic conditions, it is possible that they present a greater presence of bacterial contamination compared to the beaches in the south of Spain.

The report by the University of Alicante indicates a possible flaw in the European directive 2006/7/CE that regulates water quality. While this directive has an ambitious objective, the report cautions that clear and specific distinctions may be lacking, and there is currently no clear distinction between different types of beach soils. Furthermore, there is also no common protocol for sample collection, which creates a lot of variability depending on the time of day they are collected, whether it is a sunny or rainy day, as well as the exact location where measurements are taken. The turbidity caused by waves and tides also influences.

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✅ When a bathing area reopens

During the summer, it is the regional authorities responsible for environmental and health safety that will inform about the closure of contaminated recreational bathing areas. These closures can last between 48 and 72 hours, the time necessary to carry out the relevant actions and guarantee the health of bathers. The time required to regenerate the water depends on whether the contamination was located at a point where it was regenerated or on the severity of the contamination.

In addition, the technicians in charge of ensuring water quality carry out visual inspections to identify the presence of jellyfish, tar, plastic, floating debris, organic remains or other types of contamination. Based on these findings, a decision will be made on whether or not to close the beach as a preventive measure.

How to know if we can enjoy a bath

If you intend to enjoy an authorized bathing area during your holidays, it is important that you pay attention to the quality of the water. To facilitate this information, information signs are placed in the area indicating the water quality classification. This classification can be “insufficient, sufficient, good or excellent”. Additionally, these signs can include pictograms with a swimmer accompanied by a line above their head to provide clear visual information to vacationers, or one to three stars to show water quality from low to high. Bathing is prohibited only in places where the water does not meet the necessary quality standards, as there is a health risk when it comes into contact with fecal bacteria.

The analyzes carried out can detect the presence of substances such as mineral oils, vegetable residues, organic compounds and surfactants, plastic residues, algae and macroalgae, diatoms, decomposing mud, foams, cyanobacteriajellyfish, presence of glass, wood, rubber, among other products.

➡️ Naiad information system

Since 2008, the health information system known as Náyade has been implemented. This system collects data on the characteristics of recreational water spaces, both inland and in coastal areas. In addition, it allows real-time assessment of water quality through sampling carried out during the summer season. If we plan to travel and swim on a particular beach in Valencia, for example, we can enter the data into a search engine to check the current and usual situation in that bathing area. So that we can be informed before our trip.

The collected data are then used to produce the National Bathing Water Quality Report and the ‘European Water Quality Report’ published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). These reports monitor health and regulatory compliance in bathing areas, providing important information about your health. The latest European report for 2021, which assesses more than 21,551 bathing areas in the European Union, places Spain in 13th place in the ranking. It should be noted that 87.4% of its bathing areas have a water quality considered “excellent”, slightly above the European average.

What the Reports Don’t Tell Us

It is important to emphasize that the risks for bathers are not limited only to the presence of fecal bacteria. During the 2021 season, it was decided to temporarily close 254 bathing areas on the mainland or on the coast for various reasons, such as occasional episodes of pollution, exceptional circumstances, presence of waste or difficulties in carrying out the necessary sampling.

In addition, there are other limitations to the surveillance system. Sampling is not performed:

  • if due to weather conditions the summer season in some areas does not last more than eight weeks.
  • if you cannot access the beach for any reason.
  • or when the competent authority considers that the water does not pose a risk to health, for example, if it has obtained an “excellent” rating for five consecutive years.

In situations like these, it is important to bear in mind that periodic checks are not carried out and bathers cannot be aware of the current quality of the water.

There are other limitations on flushing that are not related to faecal contamination. An example of this occurred in May 2021, when the City Council of Sant Adrià de Besòs, in Barcelona, ​​​​decided to close the Litoral beach due to possible levels of contamination found in the sand. In this case, residues of several substances considered potentially carcinogenic were found: lead, cobalt, benzopyrene, vanadium, molybdenum, nickel and arsenic. These residues exceeded the limits allowed to guarantee human health.

In the end, the City Council was forced to ban access to bathers who continued to approach the beach, ignoring the warnings on the signs. In June 2022, the Ministry of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge began a complex decontamination process in the area. It is expected that during this summer of 2023, after two years closed, the space will be reopened to the public.

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