University fined over botched coffee experiment

LONDON • A British university has been fined after students were given enough caffeine for 300 cups of coffee in a botched science experiment.

Two students were left fighting for their lives following the experiment at Northumbria University in north-east England.

Sports science students Alex Rossetto and Luke Parkin had volunteered for the test, which aimed to measure the effect of caffeine on exercise. But after a calculation error, the second-year students were given 100 times the correct dosage, causing violent side effects and leading to them being admitted to hospital with "life-threatening reactions" in March 2015, Britain's Daily Telegraph said.

On Wednesday, Judge Edward Bindloss fined the university £400,000 (S$715,000) for the health and safety breach.

Prosecutor Adam Farrer told Newcastle Crown Court that the participants should have been given 0.3g of caffeine, but were in fact given 30g. He said there is 0.1g in the average cup of coffee. This led to them being admitted to an intensive care unit and both receiving dialysis.

He told the court that death has previously been reported after consumption of just 18g and that the overdose "could easily have been fatal", reported the BBC.

The university, which has more than 30,000 students and a budget of almost £250 million, had switched from using caffeine tablets to powder, which meant supervision was vital, Mr Farrer said.

The court was told about a catalogue of errors that led to the overdose, said the Telegraph. This included the calculation being done on a mobile phone, the decimal point being put in the wrong place and there being no risk assessment for the test.

"The failures to follow basic health and safety requirements were cumulative, persistent, longstanding and systemic," Mr Farrer said. "The university failed in its duty to ensure the safety of its students."

Mr Rossetto, who has gone on to study for a master's degree at the university, was kept in hospital for six days, reported short-term memory loss and lost 12kg in weight. Mr Parkin was treated for two days and lost 10kg in weight. Both men have since made a full physical recovery.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2017, with the headline 'University fined over botched coffee experiment'. Print Edition | Subscribe