Frequently asked questions

What are ‘identified’ bathing waters?

Identified bathing waters are bathing waters (sea, river or lake surface waters) which local authorities consider to be widely used by the public for bathing. Identified bathing waters are monitored, managed and assessed under the requirements of the 2008 Bathing Water Quality Regulations. Local authorities also monitor a number of other waters for coastal award schemes which are not formally identified. Details may be had from each Local Authority.

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How are identified bathing waters chosen?

Each year local authorities are required for the upcoming bathing season to identify bathing waters (sea, river or lake surface waters) within their area which they consider to be widely used by the public for bathing. Local authorities are required to encourage public participation in identifying new bathing waters. At present, 18 local authorities have identified 136 bathing waters which is approximately 1 for every 25km of coastline.

 

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How can I suggest my favourite beach for identification?

Local authorities are required to encourage public participation in identifying new bathing waters by communication tools such as websites, radio, newspaper advertisements, etc. and providing means for the public to convey any suggestions or observations on existing waters. Public participation is generally sought during the preceding bathing season but the duration can vary depending on the local authority. The EPA is in the procress of producing guidance for both local authorities and the public on what information is required to nominate bathing areas and how this should be assessed. Meantime, if you wish to propose a new bathing area contact your local authority to find out when their period for public participation occurs, what information they require, and how your suggestion can be conveyed to them. If your particular beach is not identified by the local authority this could be for various reasons such as low numbers of bathers, accessibility issues, or limited amenities.

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How long is our bathing season?

The bathing season in Ireland runs from 1 June to 15 September. All identified bathing waters are monitored, assessed and managed under the requirements of the 2008 Bathing Water Quality Regulations during this period. All bathing water monitoring results are available from Splash and posted on notice boards at the beaches throughout the season.

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How is bathing water quality monitored?

Bathing waters are sampled on a regular basis from the end of May to mid-September to assess the microbiological quality of the water and to minimise any public health risk. The minimum number of samples is 5 over the bathing season (effectively every 4 weeks) however most local authorities take many more samples than this, weekly in some cases. Samples are tested for two types of faecal bacteria Escherichia coli (also known as E. coli) and Intestinal Enterococci. The laboratories count the number of each these bacteria, which may indicate the presence of pollution, usually originating in sewage or livestock waste. The results of the analysis are currently assessed against the standards defined in the Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC) and from 2014 onwards will be assessed against the standards defined in the new Directive on bathing water (2006/7/EC) on a four year data set using a staitistical approach rather than percentage compliance.

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How can I find out if my favourite beach is monitored?

All formally identified bathing waters are reported on Splash. You can contact your local authority to find out at which beaches bathing water quality is monitored in your area.  Monitoring results are posted on beach notice boards and are available from the Splash website throughout the bathing season. Local authorities also monitor water quality at other beaches for their own information or in association with coastal award schemes such as Green Coast awards.

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Where are samples taken at the bathing waters?

Samples are taken in the bathing waters where there is greatest risk of pollution or where there are the most bathers, usually where the lifeguards are stationed. Samples are taken in water about 1 metre deep (if safe to do so). The location of the sampling point is shown on the notice boards at bathing waters, in the bathing water profiles, and on maps in Splash.

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What are E. Coli and Intestinal Enterococci?

All natural waters contain bacteria, usually as a result of contact with the soil. Most of these bacteria are quite harmless however some types of bacteria which can be found in faeces, both animal and human, can cause illness. The two organisms, Escherichia coli (known as E. coli) and Intestinal Enterococci, occur in very large numbers in the gut of warm blooded animal and human faeces. E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci are analysed in assessing bathing waters compliance and are used as “indicator” organisms where their presence in large numbers in bathing waters is a warning of a possible health risk from other harmful bacteria and viruses which might be present. E. coli provide a good indicator of pollution in fresh waters while in seawater Intestinal Enterococci are a better indicator of pollution as they survive for longer periods. E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci can survive for several days up to several weeks in waters.

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What are the major sources of pollution for faecal bacteria in bathing waters?

Faecal contamination makes water unsafe for recreational activities such as swimming. There are five major sources of pollution responsible for the faecal bacteria in our bathing waters. These sources increase when it rains; washing more pollution into rivers, lakes and seas and in times of very heavy rain can overwhelm sewage systems. The impacts of these events are generally very short-lived lasting 1-2 days.

  • Pollution from waste water treatment plants & sewage systems – bacteria from sewage can enter our waters as a result of system failures or storm overflows or directly from sewage works
  • Water draining from agricultural land (agricultural runoff) – manure from livestock or poorly stored slurry can wash into rivers, lakes  and streams resulting in faecal material entering the sea
  • Water draining from urban areas - water draining from urban areas via street drains and culverts following heavy rain can contain pollution including animal and bird faeces from roads and other paved surfaces
  • Domestic sewage – misconnected drains and poorly located and maintained septic tanks can pollute surface and ground water systems
  • Animals and birds on or near beaches - dog, bird, and other animal faeces can affect bathing water as they often contain high levels of bacteria (much higher than treated human waste).
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What do the bathing water sample results mean?

The two organisms, E. coli and Intestinal Enterococci, tested for in assessing bathing waters compliance are used as “indicator” organisms where their presence in large numbers in bathing waters is a warning of a possible health risk from other harmful bacteria and viruses which might be present. Bathing water samples are currently assessed against the standards defined in the Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC). Bathing waters that comply with the guide standards carry a bathing risk of 5% on gastro-enteritis, those complying with the mandatory standards carry a risk of 12 – 15%. Notice boards at the beaches show the actual bathing water sample results and display smiley symbols to interpret their assessment against the standards, e.g. a happy smiley means the water quality is good. The Splash website displays bathing water sample results throughout the bathing season and (from 2014) will interpret their assessment against the current standards as water quality status of 'excellent, ' ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’.

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How do I know it is safe to swim and when is it not?

There are different ways you can use to find out what is the latest quality status of bathing waters and if there are any current warnings or advice against bathing:

  • Splash - Before going to the bathing water you can check the Splash website (splash.epa.ie) to see the latest water quality (good, sufficient or poor) and find out if there are any current warnings or advice against bathing notices in relation to water quality.
  • Local authority  – You can contact your local authority if you have any queries on bathing waters in your area. Many local authorities provide bathing water results and other information on their own websites.
  • At the bathing water - lifeguards will fly the red flags when bathing waters are considered unsafe for bathing. You can check out the notice boards to see the latest water quality and if any warnings or advice against bathing notices have been posted by the local authorities.
  • Heavy rain - swimming after heavy rainfall carries an added risk of pollution from surface runoff and is best avoided.
  • EPA Ireland Twitter Account – You can sign up to the EPA Ireland Twitter account and receive tweets of when bathing water incidents start and are over.
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Should I swim after heavy rain?

Heavy rain can wash more pollution into rivers, lakes and our seas (through agricultural and urban runoff) and in some instances overwhelm sewage systems giving rise to the operation of storm overflows. The impacts of these events are generally very short-lived lasting typically 1 - 2 days. Swimming after heavy rainfall is best avoided as it carries an added risk of pollution as well as a likely increase in the amount of sediment and turbidity in the water which would make it visually unappealing.

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Should I swim if the lifeguard red flag flying?

Never swim where a sign says not to, or when the red flag is flying. The red flag is flown when there is a water safety risk e.g. the presence of dangerous under-currents. The red flag can also be flown when there is an increased risk of illness if you go into the water or where pollution has been identified.

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How good is our bathing water quality?

The quality of Ireland’s bathing waters remains very high, with 97 per cent of bathing waters (131 of 135 identified bathing waters) achieving ‘sufficient’ water quality status in 2013. From 2009 to 2013, the proportion of bathing waters achieving sufficient water quality status has increased by over five per cent.  The proportion of bathing waters achieving the stricter ‘good’ water quality status was just 67 per cent in 2012 (91 of 136 identified bathing waters), due to the impacts of severe summer storms and heavy rainfall (the wettest summer in nearly 50 years). This resulted in a number of high quality bathing waters dropping in standard from ‘good’ to ‘sufficient’ however in 2013 water were back to their normal quality.

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Should I visit other local beaches that are not identified or don’t have Blue Flags?

There are lots of beautiful beaches that can be visited around Ireland’s coastline. If you plan visiting an unfamiliar beach (not an identified or Blue Flag beach) you can contact the Local Authority or Irish Water Safety Council and the local authority to check if the beach is safe for swimming and presents no danger (not all beaches are safe due to strong tidal currents).

A number of beaches are monitored under the Green Coast scheme and their monitoring results are available from the relevant local authority. Details of Green Coast beaches are available on An Taisce website www.beachawards.ie

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Is there anything I can do to help?

  • Follow the instructions of lifeguards …they are there for your safety
  • Report any missing or damaged lifebuoys to your local authority or www.ringbuoys.ie
  • Take all your litter home with you - several hundred beach users on a sunny weekend can generate a lot of rubbish
  • Keep your dog under control and always bag & bin your dog’s mess - don’t bury it in the sand!
  • Do not walk on the dunes - vegetation is a valuable filter of pollutants, prevents erosion, and reduces runoff.
  • Get involved in a local Coastcare group – check out www.cleancoastsireland.org
  • Don’t feed seabirds - one seagull poo contains millions of bacteria!
  • Don't bury soiled nappies or rubbish in the sand … your child could be the next one to dig it up!
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