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EC Bathing Water Directive 76/160/EEC, and its proposed revision

The European Commission's Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC) is concerned with protecting human health and the environment from pollution.  

Bathing water is defined as 'those fresh or sea waters in which bathing is either explicitly authorised ... or is not prohibited and is traditionally practiced by large numbers of bathers'.  

The Directive lists 19 physical, chemical and microbiological parameters, some of which are I (Imperative) values and others G (Guideline) values.  Member States must set values for bathing water which are no less than the I values, whilst the G values are seen as desirable targets.  The Directive contains minimum sampling frequencies and reference methods of analysis.

The I (or Imperative) standards, which should not be exceeded are:

  • 10,000 total coliforms per 100ml of water

  • 2,000 faecal coliforms per 100ml of water

In order for a bathing water to comply with the Directive, 95% of samples (i.e. at least 19 of the 20 taken) must meet these standards, plus other criteria.

The higher G (Guideline) standards, which should be achieved where possible, are:

  • no more than 500 total coliforms per 100ml of water, and

  • no more than 100 faecal coliforms per 100ml of water in at least 80% of samples (i.e. 16 or more of the 20), and

  • no more than 100 faecal streptococci per 100ml of water in at least 90% of sample (i.e. 18 or more of the 20).

The Directive was implemented in England and Wales by the Bathing Water Regulations 1991.  The principal effect of the Directive has been to prevent, or at least minimise, the presence of sewage sludge in waters intended for bathing. 

A revised Directive has been proposed which will simplify and consolidate the existing Directive and take account of technical progress and new knowledge.  Based on epidemiological research and experience from the implementation of the current Directive, the revised version aims to modernise the management of bathing waters.

The proposal was adopted by the European Commission on 24 October 2002.  It makes use of only two bacteriological indicator parameters, but sets a higher health standard than the 1976/160 Directive targeting health standards relating to faecal pollution (the primary cause of concern).  

The classification of a beach's water quality will be determined on the basis of a three-year trend rather than one year's results and so will be less susceptible to bad weather conditions or "one-off" incidents.  It will also allow beaches with exceptionally good water quality to exploit/capitalise on the situation.    

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