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Value of bathing waters and influence of bathing water quality: literature review

Research aimed to provide socio-economic understanding of the value of Scottish bathing waters and the influence of bathing water quality (BWQ) to bathers, beach users and to the national and local economies.


Beach signs: Awareness, understanding and influence

This part of the literature review responds to SRQ2.2: what do people understand about the information presented on bathing water quality signs and signage (particularly information about changes in classification)? (see Table 2.1). Within the scope of our review (see Part 2), we can conclude that the exact scope of this research question is a key evidence gap; from the sources reviewed, only two papers deal explicitly with peoples' understanding of BWQ signs and signage and mainly in an exploratory / setting the research agenda sense (eftec, 2002; Oliver et al., 2016). Accordingly, the question addressed in this part of the review has been broadened to consider some key related issues including how members of the public might respond to information about poor BWQ and the factors that might influence peoples' poor understanding of signage and messaging on BWQ issues.

Challenges and opportunities for effective BWQ signage

Oliver et al. (2016) explored a range of issues around emerging technological changes in BWQ assessment and the potential implications of this for the provision of public information on BWQ ( e.g. via on-beach signage). The use of new, much quicker molecular tools for BWQ testing present the opportunity of quicker more 'real time' statements of the health risks posed by BWQ. There is a suggestion that beach users are likely to welcome such 'real time' information as this would allow them to make more informed decisions concerning: (1) which beaches to visit; and (2) what activities to undertake ( e.g. not undertaking immersion based activities in the instance of poor BWQ). There is discussion around the use of probabilistic risk forecasting for BWQe.g. explicitly informing publics of the percent chance of illness of bathing at a particular beach. Related to this point, the paper also cites eftec (2002), highlighting how socio-economic evidence indicates that simple advisory messages about whether swimming ( i.e. a specific immersion based activity) is safe or not are given higher value than detailed information about health risks. There is also discussion about the ambiguous nature of risk communication and interpretation.

While Oliver et al. (2016) make several suggestions for how BWQ information and messaging ( e.g. signage) could potentially be improved, they also point to critical areas of uncertainty concerning how members of the public will interpret and act on the information: "little is known about how the public perceives the risk of illness associated with different microbial water-quality standards ( e.g. risk of illness associated with 'excellent' versus 'good' versus 'sufficient' regulatory classifications of the rBWD) or how this relates to a beach user's acceptability threshold for FIO [faecal indicator organism] exposure during bathing" (Oliver et al., 2016 p.55). They also cite several other sources (Dufour et al., 2006; Wade et al., 2008; Pratap et al., 2013 [27] ) concerning variation in BWQ health risk perception between different types of beach user ( e.g. family groups comprising children or immunosuppressed persons who may be more vulnerable to infection). In short, the effectiveness of different means of communicating BWQ information is poorly understood, so it is hard to know how best to respond to new BWQ assessment technologies that could facilitate 'real time' information provision. The paper calls for various areas of socio-economic research to be progressed to answer these questions. This includes consideration of local economic impacts if, for example, there is use of rapid assessment methods and 'real time' information provision in one location but not in others.

How might people respond to information about poor BWQ?

Although not explicitly related to BWQ signs and signage, two of the sources reviewed provide some insight as to how members of the public might respond to information about poor BWQ. In part, this may help to address (in simple non-specific terms) some of the gaps highlighted in Oliver et al. (2016) in terms of how people might respond to BWQ information and what types of information might be most effective.

In a survey of beach users (n=125) in Poole (southern England), Shepherd (2014) asked participants how they would respond to a scenario of poor BWQ. Participants who rate water quality issues as a 'medium' or 'high' importance factor (see Part 5 above) are split in terms of whether they would visit the bathing water site or not. Unsurprisingly, those who rate water quality as 'unimportant' would still visit. Importantly, the types of activity that people undertake at the beach would influence their decision-making in a poor BWQ scenario. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those who are there just for the view would still visit. Interestingly, Shepherd (ibid) identified only a weak relationship between water quality and watersports users, suggesting that this group may still visit and undertake their activities in a poor BWQ scenario.

Crucially, results from the Scottish (Ayrshire coast) survey in Hanley et al. (2003) showed that the majority of respondents were not confident in making judgements on water quality, with 60% agreeing that they know very little about the issue. The discussion in Oliver et al. (2016) echoes this sentiment where the question of how members of the public would interpret and respond to BWQ information was raised.

The study by eftec et al. (2014) for the Environment Agency included questions as part of a beach visitor survey about visitors' response to seeing signs showing that a beach has poor bathing water quality. Visitors' stated response fed into estimating the avoided loss of benefit from improving bathing water quality. The trip-generating function estimated as part of the study confirmed that the presence of an advisory sign negatively affects respondents' frequency of visits.

Factors influencing poor understanding of BWQ signage / messaging

Building on the sub-sections above, three of the sources reviewed provide some evidence on the factors that might influence poor understanding of BWQ signage / messaging amongst members of the public. McKenna et al. (2011) specifically considered the role of beach awards influencing beach visits. As beach awards often include indicators on BWQ ( e.g. the Blue Flag Award [28] ), the results provide a useful indication of how members of the public interpret and act upon on-beach signage (in this case signage on beach awards). Survey results indicated poor levels of understanding of beach awards though this was considered unsurprising given poor provision of public information boards at designated beaches.

This issue is perhaps less relevant in the case of BWQ / the rBWD given statutory requirements for on-beach signage, though the question of interpretation and understandability remains (Oliver et al., 2016). Shepherd (2014 p.53) echoes this, highlighting how information displayed on beach award signage (not rBWD) is presented in a scientific / data based format which is only understandable by individuals who are "either scientifically minded or particularly interested in bathing quality".

Oliver et al. (2016) identify specific interpretation issues with rBWD BWQ signage; the symbols / classifications are considered to provide little information in terms of what the classification might mean for health risk and the inherent uncertainties associated with health risk assessments ( e.g. different levels of vulnerability between different groups). Interestingly, this contrasts with the review of eftec (2002) in Oliver et al. (ibid) which suggests that simple advisory messages about swimming can be highly effective (see above).

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