British university fined after botched experiment sees students given enough caffeine for 300 cups of coffee

The second-year students were given 100 times the correct caffeine dosage, causing violent side-effects.
The second-year students were given 100 times the correct caffeine dosage, causing violent side-effects.BUSINESS TIMES FILE PHOTO

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 to take part in 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 (Jan 25), Judge Edward Bindloss fined the university £400,000 (S$700,000) over 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.

"It would be mixed with water and orange juice but they were erroneously given 30.7g and 32g of caffeine, which was 100 times the dosage they should have been given," he said.

He told the court that death has previously been reported after consumption of just 18g and the students were left in a "life-threatening condition".

He told the court the overdose "could easily have been fatal", said 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, he said, meant supervision was vital.

But he said: "The staff were not experienced or competent enough and they had never done it on their own before.

"The university took no steps to make sure the staff knew how to do it."

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, long-standing and systemic," he said.

"The university failed in its duty to ensure the safety of its students."

Mr Rossetto, who has gone on to study for a masters 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.

The university admitted the health and safety breach at a hearing at Sunderland magistrates' court last month, the Telegraph said.

Peter Smith, defending, said the university's vice-chancellor Andrew Wathey was in court, along with other members of staff, as the human face of the university.

"They are deeply sorry, genuinely sorry for the breach in this case," he said.

"The university community is a close one and they wish to emphasise that they take the welfare of their students and staff seriously."