In this specialist guide the experts at Water Treatment Services look at the management of recreational water quality standards required to ensure the safety of bathers and other people using inland and coastal water sites throughout the UK.
The guide reviews current regulatory standards, identifies typical contaminants and highlights specific indicator bacteria used to evaluate the safety of both fresh and salt water. The guide also considers the need for specialist recreational water testing, the potential health issues caused by contaminated bathing water and additional safety considerations that need to be taken in to account.
What are recreational waters?
Recreational water is a term you’ll often see in government pamphlets, local and seaside water quality reports, and lots of scientific papers. It’s not a term you’ll hear in everyday conversation though, so it’s probably best to start off by giving the proper definition.
Natural or recreational water is any body of water which is used for open water swimming or water sports such as kayaking, water skiing or sailing. Usually it means an inland body of fresh water such as a river, reservoir, lake or pond, but could also refer to coastal waters including estuaries and the open sea.
Many of these natural water bodies are increasingly used for recreational swimming including open water swimming, triathlon and charity swim events. Maintaining good water quality standards to ensure the safety of people using these bodies of water is therefore becoming increasingly important.
Recreational water quality standards
Governments and other official agencies, such as the European Union, draw up legal limits for cleanliness and hygiene for natural and recreational water sites.
Environmental health specialists will give advice on the maximum concentration for types of particular bacteria, microorganisms and other contaminants before the water starts to pose a risk to human health. These limits tend to cover the well-known bacteria such as E .coli, enterococci as well as some lesser known ones.
Legal limits will also cover the levels of contaminants which can be discharged into the air or water courses from industry or agriculture. This covers all sorts of chemicals, including fertilisers and heavy metals such as lead and mercury.
Depending on who draws up the control limits, they might be legally binding or voluntary guidelines. Unlike set legal limits there are usually no fines or other penalties for not following voluntary guidelines.
Primary and secondary contact with water
Recreational water quality standards are particularly important in areas where people are likely to come in to close contact with water when paddling, open water swimming or boating. Many authorities split these standards further into categories for primary and secondary contact.
Primary contact means that people are going to be putting their heads under the water, either because they are swimming, or there is the potential for falling in from a boat.
Standards for water quality in these types of water are higher than situations where people aren’t swimming or canoeing, but the water is just used for paddling or sailing.
Bathing Water Directive 2006/7/EC
The EU Bathing Water Directive 2006/7/EC is the current standard covering recreational bathing water quality in the UK. It replaced the previous Directive 76/160/EC and deals specifically with natural bathing waters.
It focuses on the presence of two key microbiological parameters, intestinal enterococci and E .coli instead of nineteen set out in the old 76/160/EC Directive. Other parameters are also considered including cyanobacteria or microalgae.
The current Bathing Water Directive calls for the monitoring of bathing waters to be carried out annually with at least four samples taken per season.
The microbiological results can be graded as poor, sufficient, good or excellent, with sufficient being the minimum water quality standard required for swimming. Where the water quality is graded poor, bathing should be prohibited and action taken to improve water quality.
Recreational water testing
It’s important to note that both fresh water and sea water will have a level of naturally occurring bacteria. Most of these bacteria are not damaging to human health, and their presence doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be swimming in the water.
Similarly, small amounts of certain chemicals in water doesn’t make it unsafe. However, some types of algae including Blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria) might be of concern for human health, and also for pets.
Most tests of natural bathing and recreational water are looking for bacteria and parasites in the water which could indicate faecal contamination. This type of bacteria is only found in the guts of animals, so is a clear indication of sewage in the water. E .coli is the main bacteria of concern in freshwater lakes, rivers, reservoirs and ponds. In salt water, the Enterococci is the main indicator of contamination.
Other common parameters of concern may include Total Coliforms, Faecal Streptocci, Blue-green algae (Cyanobacteria), pH of the water and the presence of metals.
Additionally, the number of microorganisms in the water is typically affected by a wide range of factors. These include how large the body of water is, and how many people are using it.
Rivers or streams flowing into a lake or the sea might bring contaminants with them. Animals using the water or grazing on surrounding farmland could also be a cause of contamination.
Recommended routine testing for recreational and open water swimming locations would typically include for the following parameters:
Additionally, other tests may be required for other parameters including:
Contaminated bathing water can cause illness
People who are swimming or diving into water which is contaminated with high levels of faecal bacteria run a high risk of becoming ill, especially if they swallow some of the water, even if they don’t mean to.
Pollution and bacteria in the water can cause many health conditions including diarrhoea, skin rashes; ear, eye, respiratory and wound infections, along with other diseases.
In mild cases of illness, bathers might develop an upset stomach, with vomiting, diarrhoea or both. On occasion, some people become more seriously ill and can develop conditions such as hepatitis or dysentery.
Anyone has the potential to become ill after contact with contaminated water. However, young children, older people and people with underlying medical problems are more likely to develop illnesses.
Even if people aren’t in the water or swallowing it, there is still the chance they might fall ill. Bacteria and other microorganisms contaminating the water can enter the human body through cuts on the skin or through the nose or ears. Paddling in contaminated water or touching in can also cause skin rashes.
Often, it’s very difficult to measure the presence of bacteria and viruses in larger bodies of water such as lakes, reservoirs or the ocean. If you are aware that sewage is being discharged into a natural body of water however, you can reasonably expect to find potentially nasty bugs such as E .coli, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella or norovirus.
The testing of natural bathing and recreational water typically involves taking controlled samples of the water and then transporting them to the laboratory for examination by specially trained scientists.
Analysis of the water samples will usually involve using high powered microscopes or growing cultures to try to get an indication of the levels of bacteria present in the water sample.
Testing for indicator bacteria in recreational water
As it’s often difficult to measure and detect some bacteria in natural bathing waters, generally accepted practice is to look for the presence of certain indicator bacteria.
Scientific experience tells us that if we can detect E .coli, coliforms and streptococci bacteria, then these can provide a good general indication of overall bathing water quality and the potential risks to bathers and swimmers. These indicator bacteria include:
- E .coli
- Streptococci bacteria
Testing methods must take into account the lifespan of any bacteria and other pathogens in the water, given that they will die over time, especially in salt water or under strong sunlight.
Currently, laboratory water testing takes between 24 and 48 hours, but scientists are working to develop techniques to cut this to under 4 hours. These decreased test times could allow event organisers and managers of recreational bathing water locations to respond even more quickly to problems detected in their water to keep people safe.
So is the water safe to use?
Water which meets recreational water quality standards is generally safe from a bacteriological point of view. It doesn’t necessarily follow however that the water is free from pollution, dirt and other contaminants.
It’s also important to remember that there are often other dangers in natural and open bodies of water such as tides, currents, submerged objects and sudden changes in depth. Water isn’t automatically safe to swim in just because it’s clean.
Monitoring bathing water quality on beaches
In the EU, directives are issued centrally to cover the monitoring and quality of bathing water in all member states, including the United Kingdom (Bathing Water Directive 2006/7/EC).
The aim of the EU guidelines is to monitor the overall quality of the bathing water, and grade the quality and cleanliness. EU member states conduct annual testing of their natural recreational waters, with samples taken four times during the bathing season.
After testing, the quality of the sea water is graded on the following scale:
All member states should be striving to meet the “sufficient” classification as a bare minimum for bathing water quality on beaches. If test results indicate that the water quality is poor, then steps should be taken to address this.
Often, that means stopping people from getting into the sea until the quality of the water at the beach has been improved to an acceptable level.
Blue Flag award for beaches
The best known scheme for beaches is the “Blue Flag” awards system. Only beaches where the bathing water is high quality get the right to fly the Blue Flag award.
Beaches wishing to get this accreditation need to not only make sure the sea water quality is good, but must also provide showers, litter bins and stop dog fouling in order to provide as hygienic an experience for bathers and people using the beaches as possible.
Specialist recreational water testing solutions
Water Treatment Services offer a comprehensive range of water testing and laboratory analysis solutions to support owners, operators and managers of natural, open swimming and recreational water sites.
Our experts can provide advice and support to help you identify the most appropriate strategies for the on-going management of your water quality.
Contact Water Treatment Services to find out more about our laboratory water analysis services including microbiological testing, chemical and in-field sampling services.
With offices in London serving the South and South East England, Manchester (North West), Birmingham (Midlands), Bristol (South East England and Wales), Leeds (North and North East) and Glasgow (Scotland), supported by regional teams of specially trained technicians, in-field specialists and consultants we can offer professional, cost effective laboratory analysis solutions across the whole of the UK and internationally.
Contact us today to learn how our expert water management solutions can help you keep your water safe.
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