Students took equivalent of 300 cups of coffee in botched experiment

Undergraduate students Alex Rossetto and Luke Parkin were admitted to hospital for emergency treatment after they were given 100 times the correct dosage of caffeine

Rachael Pells
Education Correspondent
Wednesday 25 January 2017 17:29 GMT
The overdose was enough to potentially kill the students, the court heard
The overdose was enough to potentially kill the students, the court heard (Getty)

A British university has been fined £400,000 after two of its students were left fighting for their lives following a botched science experiment.

Sports science students Alex Rossetto and Luke Parkin had volunteered to take part in the test at Northumbria University, 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 them being admitted to hospital with “life- threatening reactions” in March 2015.

Prosecutor Adam Farrer told Newcastle Crown Court the overdose “could easily have been fatal”.

The volunteers should have been given 0.3g of caffeine, but were in fact given 30g, he said – the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee in one dose.

Mr Rossetto and Mr Parkin were both admitted to an intensive care unit to receive emergency dialysis.

Delivering his verdict, Judge Edward Bindloss said the university knew that excess caffeine could have been fatal, and the fact the victims were in good physical shape was likely a factor in their recovery.

On top of the fine, Northumbria University was ordered to pay £26,468 in costs as well as a £120 victim surcharge.

Mr Farrer said the drugs given for the experiment “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”.

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

”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, which 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.

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“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 a Masters degree at the university, was kept in hospital for six days, reported short-term memory loss and lost 26.5lb (12kg) in weight.

Mr Parkin was treated for two days and lost 22lb (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.

Peter Smith, defending, said 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.”

Additional reporting by PA

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