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West: Europe's Cleanest Beaches -- A List For Vacationers

Summertime is on the doorstep and people everywhere are looking forward to their holidays. For millions of families, the annual trip to the beach -- dreamed about during the long, cold months -- is at hand. But just how clean is the water that children and adults will be swimming in?

Prague, 12 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The beach is calling with its siren song. As the holiday season approaches, it's time once again to think of getting out the swimming togs and sand buckets, packing everything into the family car and leaving for the slow, sweaty drive to the beach.

This is what the family has been dreaming of all the long winter months: sun, surf, and lots of fun.

But there is a shadow side to beach holidays. The question is: What is in the surf, apart from seawater? In our heavily populated, industrialized world, there are hundreds, even thousands, of pollutants, ranging from sewage and animal waste to chemicals, oil, and other substances. All of these are potential health hazards, particularly for children.

Bacteria is considered the primary problem. It can cause gastroenteritis, as well as skin rashes, eye infections, and other illnesses.

Western European beaches were at their most polluted in bacterial terms in the 1970s, when, for instance, bathers on the Italian Riviera found themselves swimming amid raw sewage.

Since then, public consciousness about pollution has grown, and the matter of bacterial beach pollution has slowly been brought under control. In 1976, the European Union set the present standards for bathing-water purity. It grades the coastal waters of EU member states for water quality in terms of bacteria.

This year, Belgium's North Sea beaches have proven to be the cleanest in the European Union, with 100 percent compliance with EU standards. This was revealed in a report issued by the European Commission in Brussels.

Although Belgian beaches are wide and sandy, the North Sea is, at best, cool. It might interest more vacationers to know that Greece came in a close second, with a 99.4 percent rating. The list then runs to Germany, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Britain, Denmark, Finland, and last -- with 88 percent compliance -- France.

Pia Ahrenkilde, a spokeswoman for EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom, said France must obviously do more, but that the overall situation is reasonable. "This exercise is something which actually enables us to tell what the trend for the bathing water is, and all member states, I would say, are now in a position where there is a rather high level of compliance with the basic standard in the directive, which aims to ensure that these waters are safe to bathe in," Ahrenkilde said.

Ahrenkilde said the Eastern European accession countries are not yet included in the program, but will be expected to participate from the moment of their accession, likely starting in 2004. But not all Eastern candidate countries are waiting that long to act.

Croatia, which is not even a formal candidate for EU membership, sets great store on high environmental standards for its tourist industry. The director of the Croatian tourist office in London, Josef Lozic, said many beaches in his country already meet EU standards and sport the "blue flag." "A blue flag is given by the European Union environmental agency for cleanliness of beaches. And to qualify for a blue flag, the beaches have to fulfill a very strict set of ecological conditions with all facilities and with cleanliness of the sea as a prime condition," Lozic said.

But some environmentalists nevertheless fear that the expected mass accession to the EU of up to 10 new Eastern European members could create pressure to lower EU standards, not just in terms of the bacterial content of water, but also more generally.

Martin Hojsick is a Slovak-based activist with the Greenpeace environmental organization. "We hope that especially the EU enlargement, and accession of the new member states, will ensure that environmental standards are raised [in the region] and that pollution is fought against. [But] the fear is that this will not happen, and that the new majorities within the EU will change EU policies so that they are less environmentally friendly," Hojsick said.

Hojsick said this potential pressure would stem from the conflict between job retention and environmental goals. He said the worst polluters are usually the biggest employers, and though the public recognizes the importance of things like clean water, at the same time they fear the loss of jobs.

However, perhaps one can put aside such heavy thoughts for the moment, at least until after the summer holidays. Why not take a quiet walk along the shoreline in the evening, when the day's crowds have gone?