Bathing in the sea 'adds risk of illness'

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The Independent Online
SWIMMING in the sea can make you slightly sick, an exhaustive Government-funded study of more than 17,000 people has concluded. The more sewage-contaminated the seawater, the more likely bathers are to come down with gastro-enteritis and diarrhoea.

The research confirms that sea bathing carries a slight health risk, irrespective of whether the water is polluted. When saltwater covers the skin or enters the eyes, ears and throat it appears to raise the risks of contracting a bacterial or viral infection or contracting a skin rash.

But when the seawater carries a significant load of sewage-related bacteria and viruses the risk of a gut infection is increased.

Yesterday Robert Atkins, an Environment minister, said the report would 'provide reassurance for the many people who enjoy sea bathing'. The Government's advice is that the risk of severe illness from swimming in the sea is negligible.

The four years of research were carried out by the independent Water Research Centre, the University of Surrey and St David's Univeristy College, Lampeter, and covered 13 beaches including six which failed the feacal baceteria standards of the EU bathing water directive - Rhyl, Morecombe, Cleethorpes, Instow, Westward Ho] and Ramsgate.

The study had two parts. In one, 16,500 people questioned on the beach were asked to report any illness the suffered in the weeks immediately afterwards and to say how much time they spent in the water and what they did.

In the other, 1,100 healthy adult volunteers were divided into two equal groups, half of whom went into the sea and half stayed dry. Their health was then monitored by checking for signs of infection in their throats, ears and feacal samples and by questioning them.

The conclusions are that there is a slightly increased risk of a range of common infections from sea bathing and that the EU's bathing water standards provide adequate health protection.

Four fifths of Britain's bathing beaches meet this standard due to a pounds 2bn programme of coastal sewage disposal improvements. By the end of next year all beaches should comply.