Stockholm – Europe's best bathing waters are found in Austria, Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg and Malta, the European Union's environment watchdog said on Tuesday.
A report released ahead of the European summer holiday season showed that the top five countries recorded "excellent" ratings for at least 95 per cent of their bathing waters.
In Malta almost 99 per cent of all bathing sites scored the highest quality level, Cyprus recorded 97.3 per cent and Greece almost 96 per cent – welcome reading for their tourist industries.
That was only topped by Luxembourg that had a 100-per-cent record for the country's 12 tested bathing waters.
22,000 sites tested
The findings were based on tests of water quality in almost 22,000 beach, river and lake sites across Europe during 2017, including non-EU members Switzerland and Albania.
The quality of bathing waters in Europe has improved in recent years, the European Commission and the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency (EEA) said.
Across all the 30 countries surveyed, 85 per cent of bathing sites achieved excellent status – a slight decrease compared to 2016. This was mainly attributed to the effect of summer rain on test results. In Germany, 91 per cent achieved "excellent" status.
However, it was an increase of about 3 percentage points compared to 2013.
"Good cooperation and constant vigilance"
The report said that all reported bathing sites in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland met minimum quality standards.
Karmenu Vella, the EU environment commissioner, said the "quality is due to good cooperation and constant vigilance. We all play a part: industry, local authorities and services together with citizens."
EEA chief Hans Bruyninckx cautioned against complacency, adding that "regular monitoring and assessment of bathing sites remains a crucial task."
Poor water quality as a health risk
About 1.4 per cent of bathing waters – a total of 306 – were found to have poor water quality, posing a risk of illness such as diarrhoea, but fewer than the 316 sites reported in 2016.
Bathing sites classified as poor have to be closed the following season.
The countries with the highest number of bathing waters failing to meet EU standards in 2017 were France (80), Italy (79) and Spain (38).
Countries with the highest rates of bathing waters failing to meet EU standards were Estonia (7.4 per cent), Ireland (4.9 per cent), and Britain (3.3 per cent).
The samples are tested for two types of bacteria, Escherichia coli – or E coli – and intestinal enterococci.
Pollution from sewage or waste from livestock were the main sources of poor water quality. Floods or heavy rains can result in more pollution being washed into rivers, lakes and seas, the report said.