Bugs kill hundreds on 'clean' beaches

Jonathan Leake, Science Editor

Beach playHUNDREDS of people bathing on British beaches declared clean by the government have contracted virulent and sometimes fatal illnesses, a new study shows. The infections range from stomach upsets to respiratory diseases and the deadly E-coli bacteria.

Nine days ago an inquest jury heard how eight-year-old Heather Preen died of E-coli poisoning after playing on the beach at Dawlish in Devon close to a sewage overflow pipe. The beach had met the European commission's standards for cleanliness.

The new figures, collated by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a pressure group that campaigns for cleaner beaches and bathing waters, show that hers was not an isolated case. SAS has set up a medical database listing nearly 900 incidents of illness caused by contamination of beaches and sea water. More than 70% of infections were picked up by people using beaches declared clean.

Chris Hines, general secretary of SAS, said the number of people affected by sewage contamination was far higher than generally realised because only a small proportion of incidents were reported. "This shows that the mandatory standard set by Europe is useless as a guide to whether a beach is dangerous. We need to set higher standards and force water companies to adhere to them."

Such findings come as little surprise to scientists, who say the commission's standards for bathing water are outdated.

Those standards, set in 1975, allow beaches to be declared clean even if they have up to 10,000 coliforms - a type of bacteria - in a tenth of a litre of water. Up to 2,000 of those bacteria could be of human origin - and the beach would still be declared clean.

Even though the mandatory expectations are low, 38 of Britain's beaches failed to meet them last year - including favourites such as Blackpool, Cleethorpes, Folkestone, Bembridge and Teignmouth. The tests were carried out by the Environment Agency, the government's pollution watchdog.

The commission also sets a voluntary guideline standard under which bathing water may have no more than 500 coliforms and 100 streptococci in every 100 millilitres. Of 535 British beaches tested, 224 failed to meet this standard.

Josh Lord, 17, found out about Britain's dirty beaches the hard way when he contracted hepatitis A while surfing in north Cornwall. The sports student suffered acute stomach pains, tiredness and other symptoms for several weeks before he was diagnosed - and then had to spend six months recovering. "I felt terrible for months and had to give up sport for a long time," he said.

Research by David Kay, professor of environment and health at the University of Wales, shows that many others will suffer similar experiences, because the system of testing bathing waters will never be able to guarantee safety.

Among his strongest criticisms is that the Environment Agency takes just 20 samples from each beach a year - insufficient to take account of the wide range of different conditions that can apply. After rain, for example, overflowing sewers can flood a beach with bacteria and viruses. Conversely, samples taken during good weather will be exceptionally low in micro-organisms because sunlight kills them.

Additionally, Kay's study, to be published soon in Water Research magazine, shows that even if Britain did clean up all its sewage, many beaches would remain polluted because of agricultural run-off. "Wales, for example, has 2.7m people - and 11m sheep," he says.

"Each animal produces up to 11 times more micro-organisms than a human and they are easily carried into streams and on to beaches."

The bug that killed Heather Preen probably came from such a source. E-coli 157 lives in the guts of cows and reaches humans via farm run-off or contaminated meat and milk.

Last November, after warnings that the EU was planning to prosecute Britain for breaching water quality standards, ministers announced an 8 billion investment scheme to clean up sewage discharges.

Next month, however, the Marine Conservation Society's annual beach watch survey will show that pollution levels in some areas such as Wales are increasing.

Kay believes the only effective way to make beaches safe is for water companies and local authorities to run daily checks and issue bulletins on water safety.

For Julia Preen, Heather's mother, such measures will come far too late. She said: "I went away for a holiday and came back without my daughter - and all because water companies were trying to save money."

Professor Hugh Pennington, Britain's leading expert on E-coli, has warned parents to keep children under five away from farms because of their vulnerability to the deadly bug, which is carried by livestock.