Europe’s most polluted beaches – where swimming carries a health warning

All the polluted beaches listed below are near busy centers or city break destinations – Getty

Top of the list of requirements for a perfect beach holiday is a stretch of sand bordered by crystal clear water – which should be a given, but isn’t. The UK has received a lot of publicity for its dirty seas and rivers, but the rest of Europe has its fair share too.

Water quality is affected by many factors, from sewage discharges to storm surges, marine litter, microplastics, agricultural runoff and industrial pollution. The good news is that, thanks to careful monitoring and improvements (much of it the result of campaigning by environmental groups), the situation is slowly improving.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), which monitors bathing water quality across more than 21,000 sites, reports that it has “improved significantly over the past four decades” and that “more than 95 percent of bathing sites the minimum standards set by the EU. legislation”. Sadly, however, even the cleanest beaches are suffering from pollution events, according to Tim Nunn of marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage.

“Unfortunately we still have ‘dry dumping’ in the UK, which means sewage is dumped without rain, but swimming after heavy rain is the biggest thing to be careful about,” Nunn said. . “No beach near a population center will be free from pollution at times.”

Looking at EEA data and local sources, we have identified some of the most polluted beaches in Europe, all near busy resorts or city break destinations. Check they’re not on your must-have bathing list below. It’s not all bleak reading, however: councils in each of these areas are reportedly working hard to make improvements.

Plage de La Gravette, Antibes, France

Although the vast majority of beaches on the Côte d’Azur have ‘excellent’ water quality according to the EEA, the stretch around Cap d’Antibes is only considered ‘adequate’ or ‘poor’ — especially on Plage the popular de la Gravette, below. the old town of Antibes. The beach is striking because of its sheltered location, but its water is enclosed by rock walls and does not play well.

Plage de La Gravette is a popular place, but its water is badly pollutedPlage de La Gravette is a popular place, but its water is badly polluted

Plage de La Gravette is a popular place, but its water is badly polluted – Getty

In June 2023, officials had to ban swimming here because there were high levels of enterococcus bacteria found in a sewage leak in the water (thought to be caused by storm runoff and recreational boats).

The good news? The Municipality of Antibes is working hard to stop bathing water pollution and its quality has improved for the 2024 season. Be that as it may, swimmers may want to go to Juan-Les-Pins, on the other hand of the Cap, after any major storms: its water is consistently rated “excellent” by the EEA.

Saint-Michel-en-Grève, Brittany, France

Many of the most picturesque beaches in Brittany have been badly affected, for many years, by green algae. This invasive algae is sea lettuce native to the area – however, nitrates entering the water encourage it to get out of control, and then it emits hydrogen sulphide as it begins to decompose. This toxic gas can cause headaches, nausea and eye irritation and has been linked to the death of people and animals in the area.

Saint-Michel-en-Grève in Brittany has a 'poor' rating from 2021Saint-Michel-en-Grève in Brittany has a 'poor' rating from 2021

Saint-Michel-en-Grève in Brittany has a ‘poor’ rating from 2021 – Musat

The French government and local authorities are trying to tackle the problem, spending around €1 million a year cleaning up the algae, but have been criticized for not doing enough: beach closures remain common and the water at the 4 km stretch of it. A sandy beach at Saint-Michel-en-Grève has been consistently classified as “poor” since 2021. However, there are places to escape the green stuff along the Brittany coast, including Saint-Malo, two hours’ drive east and the water quality is considered “excellent” by the EEA.

Pellaro Lume, Reggio Calabria, Italy

A busy port town in southern Italy, Reggio Calabria is the main arrival and departure point for Sicily, with the blue Ionian sea on one side. But beware that you’re inviting water – a swimming ban is enforced every summer along a 12 km stretch of coast that runs near the town, where the “poor” EEA classification covers seven beaches with including the popular Pellaro Lume.

In 2019, there was a disturbance when swimmers, many of them children, ended up in the hospital with infections caused by fecal contamination (the worst problem seems to have been around Bocale, the next settlement after that). The President of the Calabria region, Roberto Occhiuto, has prioritized the purification of waste water, although there is still a long way to go. Despite this, some excellent pieces of water are found north of Reggio Calabria as well as many to the south.

Lido Olimpo, Sicily, Italy

As the city of Palermo has boomed into a growing destination, the quality of the water on its beaches has deteriorated. Over the past five years, water quality along around half of the city’s coastline – a 17km stretch from Mondello to Ficarazzi – has dropped from an EEA “excellent” rating to “adequate”, and two beaches (Messina Marine and Lido Olimpo) there. now rated “poor”.

The mayor of Palermo often bans swimming because of fecal bacteria from wastewater as well as potential contamination of groundwater from landfills. Sewage systems have been changed to stop spills and the beaches have been cleaned, but the environment is still in the process of restoration. The good news is that excellent water can be found on beaches north and south of Palermo, including the gloriously clear waters of Fondachello.

Praia do Camilo, Algarve, Portugal

In 2020, the red flag was raised at Camilo and Batata near the city of Lagos on the south coast of Portugal and swimming was banned, after it was found that the water was contaminated by faecal coliforms. In the summer of 2023, an environmental NGO in Portugal called ZERO warned that the quality of Portugal’s water is deteriorating: 28 beaches on the country’s coast are now subject to “do not swim” notices (an increase of 21 in 2022).

Water was found to be polluted by faecal sludge at Praia do Camilo in the AlgarveWater was found to be polluted by faecal sludge at Praia do Camilo in the Algarve

Water found to be polluted by faecal sludge at Praia do Camilo in the Algarve – Getty

Praia do Camilo is often named as one of the best secret beaches in Portugal, but its water quality is at risk due to its proximity to Lagos and the uncontrolled disposal of the city’s raw sewage and ineffective wastewater system.

The good news is that Meia Praia, a 4km stretch of golden sand east of Lagos, which is the largest beach in the region, has improved significantly. It is rated “excellent”.

Playa del Forum, Barcelona, ​​Spain

It’s not exactly picturesque, with a backdrop of a thermal power station, an urban waste incinerator and a sewage treatment plant, but the Fòrum beach in Sant Adrià de Besòs on the outskirts of Barcelona is frequented by city dwellers and tourists seeking sea air. For the past four years, however, the EEA has been demanding that the beach be closed due to its poor water quality, blamed on sewage overflows and deposition from the Besòs river.

The Catalan Water Agency fought a swimming ban, saying its own 2023 water analysis in Forum was good, except for a short period after some rain. However, if you want to stay on the safe side, there are many other Barcelona beaches to choose from, some of which are rated “excellent”, including Playa de Sant Sebastià, Playa del Bogatell and Playa de la Mar Bella.

Six of the cleanest beaches in the UK

Oddicombe Beach, Torquay, Devon

On the south coast of Devon, framed by red sandstone cliffs, this shingle cove near Torquay has been awarded a Blue Flag for 36 consecutive years. Water is consistently found to be excellent and facilities include a cafe and toilets (which help keep the sea clean).

clean beachclean beach

Oddicombe Beach has been awarded a Blue Flag for 36 consecutive years – Getty

East Beach, Portrush, Northern Ireland

This two mile stretch of golden beach and sand dunes on the eastern side of the Portrush Peninsula is a popular backdrop. East Beach is one of eight Blue Flag beaches in Northern Ireland and is monitored daily by RNLI lifeguards between late June and early September.

Whitesands Beach, Tyddewi, Wales

There are currently 25 Blue Flag beaches in Wales, many of them in Pembrokeshire. White Sands is one of the most popular: this west facing beach, with its large expanse of sand, is one of the best for surfing in Wales. A slope provides easy access and wheelchairs suitable for the beach are also available for hire.

clean beachclean beach

This beach is one of the best for surfing in Wales – Getty

Lunan Bay, Angus, Scotland

Scotland uses its own rating system, and 53 beaches have been awarded the Scottish Beach Award for cleanliness. To the east is one of these, Lunáin Bay, a secluded haven between Aberbroth and Montrose with two miles of pristine sand and dunes behind it and the ruins of Red Castle overlooking it.

North Bay Beach, Scarborough, North Yorkshire

Set back from the road and backed by a promenade lined with brightly colored beach huts, the long sandy North Bay Beach regularly achieves Blue Flag status. Rocky outcrops on the north side of the beach provide the perfect hunting ground for a rock pool, while the sandy loam and clear water are ideal for swimming.

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North Bay’s long sandy beach often achieves Blue Flag status – Alamy

Polzeath, Cornwall

One of nine Blue Flag beaches in Cornwall, Polzeath is a deep stretch of sand on the north coast and a haven for surfers, body boarders and families. The beach is easily accessible and is regularly cleaned by locals and tourists.

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