Swim at your own risk

Some Danish beaches too dirty for bathing, report shows

Denmark has more polluted beaches than the EU average, according to figures from the European Environmental Agency (EEA)

Over 30 Danish beaches have been branded with the red flags that mark them as unsafe on the EEA's latest map of Europe's beaches.

The beaches' bad standing is due in large part to increasingly powerful downpours that strain outdated sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants, causing the systems to overflow and pour raw sewage, e-coli and other bacteria into bathing waters around the country

"Most EU countries have problems with overflow, but the problem hits Denmark particularly hard because there are so many shallow coastal areas," EEA biologist Peter Kristensen told Politiken newspaper.

The water around Skotterup beach near Helsingør, for example, averages only two metres deep even 100 metres out from the shore. The mixture of treated water from Helsingør's purification plant and the runoff from sewers, streams and rivers in the area can result in an unappealing light brown sludge floating in the water and lining the beach. This has earned the beach failing marks from the EEA.

Only 73 percent of Danish beaches rated 'very good', while 93 percent met the minimum criteria for safe water – clean enough that bathing in them will not make people sick.

Three percent of the nation's beaches – a total of 34 – were tagged with the 'poor water quality' tag, which actually represents a small improvement over last year.

The acting environment minister, Pia Olsen Dyhr (Socialistisk Folkeparti), told Politiken newspaper that the water in Denmark's swimming holes is "generally very good and clean, so jump in!"

Dyhr pointed out that nearly three quarters of Danish bathing sites received the highest possible grade, and contended that water quality is improving all the time.

"Our own water quality is more important than who is above or below us in the EU," she said.

Dyhr said that several councils are investigating whether the less than favourable ratings of beaches in their area are the result of isolated incidents or an ongoing problem. In Helsingør, delay pools are being constructed to slow down the flow of runoff.

According to the EU Bathing Water Directive, all public beaches must meet minimum safety requirements by the end of the 2015 bathing season. Any beach receiving failing marks for five consecutive years is supposed to be shut down unless realistic measures are put in place to stop the pollution.

The directive does allow councils to keep beaches open when there is no sewer runoff if that has been shown to be the problem, but only if bathers are notified in a timely fashion.

Some bathers have become ill in recent years because they did not know that a beach had been closed.

In August 2010, some early morning swimmers at Svanemøllen suffered severe diarrhoea after a downpour sent pollutants into the water. Lifeguards did not put up the red warning flag until they arrived for work at 10 am.

Around the EU, the annual assessment of the quality of bathing water shows that although little progress has been made over the past year, things are much better than they were two or three decades ago. Nearly 80 percent of the continent's beaches have 'very good bathing water', while 94 percent meet the minimum requirements.

"It's encouraging, but more can still be done to ensure that all our water is suitable for swimming, and that our aquatic ecosystems are healthy," the EU environment commissioner, Janez Potocnik, said in a statement.

Cyprus topped the EEA list. Its beaches were all rated at 100 percent. Countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Germany were also clearly above the EU average.

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