Italy is the European country with the largest number of bathing waters, about a quarter of the total of European ones. bathing waters surface fresh waters, currents (rivers and streams) or lakes are indicated, and marine waters in which it is possible to bathe and carry out recreational or sporting activities. Undoubtedly these activities, often associated with free time and holidays, have positive effects on the well-being of those who practice them but it is necessary that the waters in which they take place are clean, i.e. free from contamination and microbiological (bacteria, viruses), is chemistry.

The quality of bathing water is fundamental for safeguarding the health of citizens and plays an important role also from the point of view of the protection of the natural environment and for the economic aspects in the tourism sector.

The mayors before the opening of the bathing season (period between 1 May and 30 September) on the basis of data referring to the previous bathing season and data from sampling and analysis carried out by the Regional Environmental Protection Agencies (ARPA) starting from April they identify the areas:

  • bathing, those for which the analyzes indicate that all the parameters indicated by the law are respected
  • not bathing, following a series of checks following the overcoming of at least one legal parameter, with the aim of understanding whether the overcoming is real or accidental. During the checks the areas can be considered as a precautionary measure temporarily not suitable for swimming

In 2003 the World Health Organization published the Guidelines for the safety of aquatic environments in which recreational activities are carried out, coastal and inland waters, which were used as the basis for the elaboration of the European Bathing Water Directive.

The potential sources of pollution for bathing water from human activities on land are mainly represented by untreated sewage, industrial waste and run-off water from agricultural soils.

Other sources of pollution for the sea include discharges from ships and offshore platforms for the production of energy, but in particular cases phenomena of atmospheric deposition should not be neglected.

Bathing water legislation

Directive 2006/7 / EC, which integrates environmental and health aspects, has introduced profound changes in the management of bathing water and has ensured a high level of protection of the health of bathers. The Directive has been developed in such a way as to take into account the other regulations in force in the water sector (in particular, Directive 91/271 / EEC, which concerns the treatment of urban waste water; Directive 91/676 / EEC, relating to protection of water from pollution caused by nitrates from agricultural sources and Directive 2000/60 / EC, which establishes a general framework within the European Community regarding water).

Italy transposed Directive 2006/7 / EC with legislative decree no. 116 of 30 May 2008 and with the subsequent decree of 30 March 2010 (Official Gazette no. 97, 24 May 2010).

The most innovative and important contents of the Directive are:

  • specific indication of the competent authorities for bathing water at national and local level
  • definition of bathing water profiles, through which the possible sources of pollution that can affect their quality are identified and evaluated. For example, the presence of sewage drains and the outlet of watercourses contaminated by industrial, agricultural or livestock activities; the presence of currents in the water or of still water in an inlet. It is therefore necessary to know and take into account the physical characteristics , geographical and hydrological areas of the area surrounding the bathing waters (drainage basin)
  • indications on the management of short-term pollution, i.e. microbiological contaminations that affect the quality of bathing water for a short period (no more than 72 hours). This type of pollution can be due to damage to the infrastructures of transport systems (pipes) or waste water treatment, to significant meteorological events such as, for example, heavy rains that can cause waste water to leak from collection and purification plants; flooding; erosion of polluted livestock, urban and agricultural areas. These circumstances are the most frightening for the health of bathers, therefore it is necessary to intervene quickly to prevent dangerous exposures, even with a simple report that advises against or prohibits bathing activities.
  • classification of bathing water quality, based on their control (monitoring) for a sufficiently long and therefore more reliable period of time, set at 4 years. Bathing waters are classified into 4 categories (excellent, good, sufficient, poor) by applying a specific formula to the control data of two microbiological quality indicators: presence of intestinal enterococci and it'sscherichia coli. The "sufficient" category is the minimum quality threshold for bathing. When the water is classified as "poor" quality for 5 consecutive years, a permanent ban on bathing or a notice that permanently discourages bathing is placed.

Directive 2006/7 / EC requires the competent Authorities to guarantee "adequate water quality also in relation to risk factors other than microbiological agents. It is in fact possible that exaggerated growths (blooms) of cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, may occur. , naturally occurring in inland waters, such as lakes or rivers, or toxic marine algae such as, for example, the "Ostreopsis ovata, in coastal waters. The presence of these organisms can be associated with the formation of some toxins, which although natural, have harmful effects on health. The Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) has published for the competent authorities the Guidelines for the management of risks deriving from the presence of cyanobacteria and toxic marine algae in bathing waters.

In the event of sources of chemical contamination in the vicinity of waters where bathing activities are carried out, the competent authorities have the task of carrying out the necessary monitoring and risk assessment activities and of taking adequate measures to safeguard the health of bathers.

Another point on which the Directive insists is information to the public, seen as a duty on the part of the competent Authorities and as a clear right of citizens who must receive it adequately, quickly and transparently. Information itself is a formidable tool for the continuous improvement of the quality of bathing water because tourists are learning to prefer places characterized by better quality waters.

Effects on health

In addition to the beneficial effects on physical and mental health deriving from the performance of recreational or sports activities in the water, the poor quality of bathing water can also cause health problems and it is therefore important that citizens inform themselves about the conditions relating to the frequented area and verify bathing and water quality classification, for example by consulting the Water Portal of the Ministry of Health.

The possibility of effects on the health of bathers associated with the presence of chemical contaminants in bathing water is, in general, negligible, due to their very low concentrations due to dilution in a high quality of water, to the presence of currents, to adsorption (close link) between sediments and substances that are not very soluble in water or to degradation. In inland waters, however, especially near drains and still waters, or the presence on the coast of the mouth of a far-reaching river, the presence of substances , especially if with irritating properties, they could be the cause of ocular, skin or respiratory disorders.

The microbiological contamination of water that receives urban waste not adequately treated can have more marked effects: some epidemiological studies have in fact indicated the possibility of contracting gastrointestinal (eg gastroenteritis) and respiratory disorders.

Following heavy rains, the quality of bathing water can deteriorate, because the pollutants, both microbiological and chemical, are washed away from the soils and conveyed across the rivers to the bathing area.

Water quality control has the purpose of eliminating the appearance of the symptoms described above.

Regardless of the quality of the water, the presence of aquatic organisms with stinging systems (such as jellyfish) or venomous organisms (such as weevers or spider fish) can cause more or less serious effects on health.Normally in our seas the effects of the stings, however painful, are local, with the formation of blisters and swellings that only rarely give fever; their severity varies according to the extent and duration of contact, the individual's sensitivity and the speed of first aid.

In the presence of cyanobacteria blooms in bathing waters, especially in lakes, it has been associated with effects and symptoms in bathers: mainly dermatitis, gastroenteritis and respiratory disorders due to direct contact. In the case of ingestion of contaminated water, for example during swimming in adults, or in the case of children while playing foams containing high quantities of the toxins produced by cyanobacteria, other more serious effects may also occur.

In the Italian marine-coastal waters the presence of toxic marine algae has been reported for some years, including "Ostreopsis ovata, capable of producing a toxin with effects on the respiratory system (flu-like symptoms) but also cardiac and muscle in the most severe cases. Respiratory disorders have also been reported in people stationed near the coast, attributed to inhalation of marine aerosol, formed in particularly windy days, containing both the dissolved toxin and fragments of the seaweed.

The most negative consequences associated with bathing activities are, instead, constituted by drowning and injuries caused by diving, for the prevention of which it is essential to obtain information on the safety of the beach.

Bathing water control activities

The control and management of bathing water is an activity that involves various bodies:

  • Ministry of Health, in agreement with the Ministry of the Environment and Land Protection: performs functions of direction and coordination of activities, updates and integrates tables and technical standards, processes monitoring data and transmits them to the European Commission
  • Regions: they plan and coordinate the activities aimed at providing information on the quality of bathing water. Before each bathing season they identify the points where to carry out the monitoring. They establish and update the bathing water profile and inform the citizens. They identify any sources of water. pollution and study the actions necessary to eliminate or limit its influence on the quality of bathing water
  • Common: before the beginning of the bathing season, they provide for the installation of appropriate signs to inform citizens about bathing and water classification, identifying a place that favors reading. During the bathing season, in the event that a pollution situation occurs, by order of the Mayor they delimit the areas temporarily forbidden to bathing and subsequently, if conditions improve, revoke the measures adopted
  • ARPA (Regional Agency for Environmental Protection): carries out technical-scientific activities (water sampling and analysis) in support of the State, Region and Municipalities in the area of ​​bathing

Where to find information on the quality of bathing water

The Ministry of Health has created the Water Portal to provide real-time updated information on the quality of bathing water, in each single municipality, with data on microbiological parameters (current and in the previous year), with photos and satellite maps.There is also the "Portale Acque" application of the Ministry of Health for mobile devices through which the user can check the bathing ability of the area, any bathing bans, the analytical results of monitoring, environmental information, any critical issues in the area and other useful information. Citizens can actively interact with the Portal by sending reports (for example, the sudden appearance of algae in specific areas of the coast) or by asking questions following which the competent Authorities will have to implement the measures useful for safeguarding the health of bathers.
In the portal there is also a section indicated as It is good to know that where to find other useful information: how to protect yourself from ultraviolet radiation, factsheets on marine organisms with poisonous systems.

It is also possible to know the situation of bathing waters in other countries of the European Union. In fact, the European Environment Agency has set up online tools that allow access to data in geospatial mapping programs such as Google Earth and Bing maps.

Bibliography and links for further information

Ministry of Health. Water Portal

Ministry of Health. Water Portal (version for mobile devices)

European Environment Agency

World Health Organization (WHO). Guidelines for safe recreational water environments (English)

Directive 2006/7 / EC of the European Parliament and of the Council on the management of the quality of bathing water (February 15, 2006)

ARPA Emilia Romagna. Bathing waters - Legislation

Funari E, Manganelli M, Testai E (Ed.). Ostreopsis cf. ovata: guidelines for the management of blooms in coastal marine environments in relation to bathing and other recreational activities. Rome: Higher Institute of Health; 2014. (ISTISAN Reports 14/19)

Funari E, Manganelli M, Testai E (Ed.).Cyanobacteria: guidelines for the management of blooms in bathing water. Rome: Higher Institute of Health; 2014. (ISTISAN Reports 14/20)

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