WHO has launched updated Guidelines for Recreational Water Quality, as the northern hemisphere summer reaches its peak and beaches, lakes and riversides are likely to see the return of visitors after months spent close to home amid COVID restrictions.

The guidelines, which should be applied alongside COVID-19 prevention measures, outline health-based water quality targets and best practice for monitoring and surveillance, pollution control and communication approaches such as predictive models to let users know in real time when it is safe to go in the water.

Recreational water use has long been recognized as a major influence on health and well-being. The benefits are evident when watching children play in the water or observing families taking much needed time together relaxing on a beach. Water sports can offer invigorating and healthy exercise options for all ages. Spending time at the waterside observing uplifts the spirit and can enhance physical and mental well-being.

“Clean, well-managed waterfronts – be they oceans, lakes or rivers – are a focal point for communities and an economic draw card for tourist and sporting events, but, as human activity and climate change intensify, more beaches are prone to pollution, which can cause illnesses and even death,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at WHO. “To manage these risks, countries which do not already have a national recreational water safety framework should develop one, which should include anticipating local climate change impacts on water quality.”

Pollution risks come from a variety of sources. Popular swimming locations may be impacted by overflows of untreated sewage, runoff of animal excreta and fertilizers from nearby farms, which can pose direct health risks and trigger toxic algal blooms.  Some sites may also be affected by chemical pollution from industrial activities or become polluted by beach users themselves though poor sanitation, faeces from pets and litter.

Apart from the clear potential health impacts for water users, all of these also erode the benefits to well-being and economic potential of the site.

For these reasons, many countries around the world regularly monitor water quality, enact measures to reduce pollution and make timely information available so water users can make an informed decision about if and where they swim.

“The latest guidelines include targets and risk management approaches based on scientific evidence and best practice from around the world summarized in several recommendations to better protect recreational water users and anticipate risks to water quality”, said Kate Medlicott, Sanitation and Wastewater Team leader at WHO.

Broadly, the three recommendations are to:

Set national health-based targets for recreational water bodies. These include microbial levels (from faecal contamination); cyanotoxins (from harmful algal blooms); and, where justified by risk and resource availability, other microbial hazards beach sand and chemicals;

Develop and implement recreational water safety plans (RWSPs) for priority bathing sites;

Conduct ongoing surveillance and risk communication of recreational water-related illness associated with recreational waters and give the public timely information about health risks.

“Implementing these guidelines would go a long way to ensuring that happy memories are made at the beach for generations to come.”, said Medlicott.