The main objectives of the European Union (EU) Bathing Water Directive (BWD) 2006/7/EC are to safeguard public health and protect designated aquatic environments from microbial pollution. The BWD is implemented through legislation by individual EU Member States and uses faecal indicator organisms (FIOs) as microbial pollution compliance parameters to determine season-end bathing water classifications (either 'Excellent', 'Good', 'Sufficient' or 'Poor'). These classifications are based on epidemiological studies that have linked human exposure to FIOs with the risk of contracting a gastrointestinal illness (GI). However, understanding public attitudes towards bathing water quality, together with perceptions of relative exposure risks, is often overlooked and yet critically important for informing environmental management decisions at the beach and ensuring effective risk communication. Therefore, this study aimed to determine the effectiveness of current regulatory strategies for informing beach users about bathing water quality, and to assess public understanding of the BWD classifications in terms of exposure risk and public health. Two UK designated bathing waters were selected as case studies, and questionnaires were deployed to beach-users. The bathing waters had different classification histories and both had electronic signage in operation for communicating daily water quality predictions. The majority of respondents did not recognise the standardised EU bathing water quality classification signs, and were unaware of information boards or the electronic signs predicting the water quality on that particular day. In general, respondents perceived the bathing water at their respective beach to be either 'good' or 'sufficient', which were also the lowest classifications of water quality they would be willing to accept for bathing. However, the lowest level of risk of contracting a gastrointestinal illness that respondents would be willing to accept suggested a significant misunderstanding of the BWD classification system, with the majority (91%) of respondents finding only a <1% risk level acceptable. The 'Good' classification is much less stringent in terms of likelihood of GI. This study has shown that the current public understanding of the BWD classifications in terms of exposure risk and public health is limited, and an investment in methods for disseminating information to the public is needed in order to allow beach-users to make more informed decisions about using bathing waters.
Keywords: Coastal management; Pollution; Public health policy; Recreation; Risk perception; Tourism.
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