Tonight: How Safe Is Your Beach?

The summer holidays are almost upon us and families across the UK are preparing to head to the coast to enjoy the sun, sea and sand. But before we take a dip, Tonight asks - how much do we know about our coastal water quality?

Last year the water at the majority of the UK’s designated bathing beaches either met or exceeded the required standards of cleanliness. But more stringent European standards for bathing water quality will come into effect from 2015, almost doubling the quality hurdle. Despite progress over recent years, currently around 10% of the UK’s coastal beaches risk not meeting the grade, according to Environment Agencies. Fiona Foster takes to the coast to learn more about beach pollution and discover where the public can get reliable information about Britain’s bathing water.

lady on deck chair on beach
Fiona Foster browses bathing water information websites Credit: ITV / Tonight

Under the new EU standards there will be four classifications for bathing water: Excellent, Good, Sufficient and Poor.

So what does this mean in terms of sickness? According to World Health Organisation figures, ‘Excellent’ would mean roughly a 1 in 30 chance of getting ill from bathing in the water and ‘Good’ a 1 in 20 chance. Sufficient would mean the risk is about 1 in 12, with the risk higher still for bathing water classed as ‘Poor’. Tonight learns how that risk might come into play when we meet a seven year old girl, who fell ill after a trip to a beach whilst on a family holiday last year.

The Environment Agency is responsible for monitoring English beaches for pollution. It invites Tonight to Devon to see bathing water being sampled and we visit the lab where over 1000 tests are conducted each week. Here they are checking for e-coli and enterococci which indicate the presence of sewage and faecal matter.

man and woman in lab
Samples are tested at this Environment Agency lab Credit: ITV / Tonight

So where does this bacteria in our water come from? It’s estimated that approximately 30% comes from Combined Sewer Over-flows (CSOs), operated by water companies, which at times allow untreated sewage to flow into the sea. These pipes provide an overflow at times of heavy rain and stop flooding and sewage backing up into people’s homes. Tonight examines how CSOs can sometimes affect bathing water quality, even at our very best blue flag beaches.

kids with surfboards on the beach
School pupils enjoying time at the beach Credit: ITV / Tonight

To learn what the water industry is doing to handle sewage disposal, Fiona is invited to a sewage treatment facility in East Sussex where each day 95 million litres of wastewater are cleaned to EU standards before being flushed out to sea.

sewage treatment plant
Peacehaven wastewater treatment works Credit: ITV / Tonight

And it isn’t just human sewage that impacts our bathing water quality. Livestock farming can contribute 20%-50% of the bacteria that ends up in local bathing waters. We visit a farm in Lancashire to find out what's being done to help reduce this impact.

Tonight also discovers what we the British public can do to improve our bathing water quality and where to find up to date, reliable information so that we can continue to enjoy our favourite beaches with peace of mind.

sunset over the sea
Does the water quality match the scenery on Britain's beaches? Watch Tonight at 7.30pm on ITV Credit: ITV / Tonight

Information on bathing water quality:

Environment Agency Data Explorer

Marine Conservation Society

Surfers Against Sewage

RNLI beach finder

Other Useful links:

Catchment sensitive farming - Natural England

Keep Britain Tidy

Water UK

Environment Agency, England

Natural Resources Wales

Department of the Environment, Northern Ireland

Scottish Environment Protection Agency