Italy and Spain 'massaging statistics on water purity'

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The Independent Online

European countries including Italy and Spain are banning swimming at coastal and inland bathing areas, or simply removing sites from the list of those tested, in order to massage statistics on water purity.

The European Commission's annual survey of bathing water quality showed a slight drop in standards across the EU from the previous year, a development explained in part by the inclusion of some of the new countries which joined the EU last year.

However, the document also highlighted the tendency of several countries, including Italy and Spain, to remove a host of sites from the annual sample without prior permission - something not permitted by the European directive.

Italy, which has almost one third of the bathing areas monitored each year in the EU banned swimming at almost 8 per cent of them - 4 per cent of its beaches and almost one third of its inland sites. Only by doing so did it manage to protect its reputation for clean bathing water, with 94.7 per cent of coastal sites attaining minimum standards.

The document says Italy's water purity on beaches remains high in general but that "the percentage of areas where bathing was prohibited rose once again to 4 per cent". It added: "One regrettable point is that some bathing areas are still not sufficiently sampled, despite the fact the sampling frequency is not open to interpretation." Spanish beaches recorded good standards but there were problems afflicting inland lakes and ponds, just 44.1 per cent of which meet the more stringent guide.

The document adds: "Another point to note is that the percentage of areas where bathing was prohibited rose sharply compared with the previous bathing season to end on 4.1 per cent." In addition 2.3 per cent were "delisted".

Portugal, Germany, France and Finland also removed more than 1 per cent of their beaches from the sample without explanation. Belgium banned swimming at 8.3 per cent of freshwater sites and delisted a further 1.4 per cent.

In Britain little more than one-third of inland sites hit the most stringent standards - a 9 percentage point drop from last year - though all meet the basic requirements. However, the document says: "The UK lists only 11 freshwater sites which seems rather low".

It adds that 97.7 per cent of coastal beaches passed the basic test, a slight drop on last year's figure of 98.4 per cent but still a good performance. Only 13 out of 562 individual British seaside resort beaches still fail to make the minimum standards, including Lyme Regis Church Beach in West Dorset, Broadstairs in Kent and Spittal in Berwick-upon-Tweed.