Peers lambast murky depths

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Bathers on polluted British beaches are at risk from serious illness even where European standards are being met, an influential committee of peers has concluded.

But they are heavily critical of Brussels for failing to produce a ``soundly-based cost-benefit analysis'' to support plans to upgrade standards further.

Neither the current EU directive nor the replacement proposed by the European Commission in April ``provide, or would provide, protection from gastro-intestinal or respiratory illnesses'', the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Communities said in a report on bathing water.

``In most British bathing waters, including those complying with the present directive, bathing brings a higher risk of gastro-intestinal symptoms than the public meet in normal daily life,'' the peers said.

But committee members are equally concerned that ``credible'' information about the estimated costs of reducing the health risk do not exist. The crucial issue arising from research published this year by WRC plc, the successor to the Water Research Council, was whether gastro-intestinal symptoms were `trivial', or whether the increased risk of acquiring them justified the setting of new higher standards, they said.

The peers concede that ``legally binding minimum standards are highly desirable''. But they lambast Brussels, which in formulating proposals for the new directive had "not engaged the scientific community in the open discussion which we regard as mandatory''.

The report appears to echo UK initial reluctance to engage in a clean-up operation and the end by 1999 to the dumping of untreated sewage into the sea,which is now provoking protests over high charges made by the privatised water companies. But it none the less makes depressing reading for would-be bathers.

The peers cite criticism in the the 1984 Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. It remarked that many British bathing waters were ``suffering from an undesirable degree of contamination by sewage''.