The report, the result of the most thorough survey ever carried out into the effects of dirty bathing water, shows that the greater the pollution, and the longer people stay in it, the more likely they are to get gastroenteritis and other diseases. And it reveals that people get sick even from bathing at beaches that pass official EU cleanliness standards.
The results of the four-year research, which surveyed more than 16,000 people at 13 popular beaches, are embarrassing to ministers who are campaigning to weaken EU bathing-water standards and trying to delay measures to clean up sewage discharges to the sea.
They also directly contradict an assurance, in Britain's official response to the decisions of the 1992 Earth Summit launched by the Prime Minister only last Tuesday, that 'bathing-water quality around the coasts of the UK does not present any significant health hazard'.
Publication of the report was originally scheduled for last March, and last-minute adjustments were still being made to it three weeks ago. Ministers and officials will stress that it does not prove beyond doubt that pollution is to blame for the level of illness it has discovered.
The study - carried out by the Water Research Centre and funded by the Departments of Environment and Health, the Welsh Office and the National Rivers Authority - examined Langland Bay, near Swansea, in 1989; Moreton in the Wirral and Ramsgate in 1990; Rhyl, Morecambe, Lyme Regis, Paignton and Southsea in 1991; and Cleethorpes, Skegness, Westward Ho and Instow near Bideford, and Thorpe Bay in Essex in 1992.
Bathers at dirty beaches such as Ramsgate and Morecambe suffered more gastrointestinal and ear, eye, and upper respiratory tract infections than those at cleaner resorts such as Paignton and Lyme Regis, though people became sick there too. The longer they stayed in the water the more likely they were to become ill; surfers and divers were more at risk than swimmers, who in turn got sick more frequently than paddlers.
Young people aged between 15 and 24 reported the most illness; it is this age group that usually spends most time in the water.
The report concludes that the risk of contracting serious illnesses from bathing in dirty water is negligible, and stops short of saying that the sickness it has found is directly caused by pollution. Government officials are preparing to suggest that the seawater itself may be to blame. The survey shows that people who merely sat on the beach became ill.
Scientists say that even clean water can cause disease, for it can carry germs into the body, but dismiss this explanation of the findings as 'spurious'.
Dr Gareth Rees, head of science and technology at Farnborough College of Technology, who took part in the study, said yesterday: 'The key point is that the chance of getting these illnesses increases as the water quality deteriorates.'
Professor Alastair McIntyre, of Aberdeen University, who has reported on bathing- water quality for the United Nations Environment Programme, said: 'These diseases are prevalent where there is any kind of sewage pollution, even if it meets EU standards.'
Last summer, Britain's progress in cleaning up its beaches stagnated, and it is now unlikely to reach its target of meeting EU standards for virtually all its beaches by 1995 - 10 years after the original deadline. In July, Britain was convicted by the European Court of failing to clean up bathing water at Blackpool and Southport.
Britain has responded by trying to emasculate the EU directives. Last month John Major secured agreement at the European Summit that the bathing-water directive should be weakened, while the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, is leading a campaign to delay implementation of a directive requiring higher standards in sewage works.
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