Two Students Nearly Die From Caffeine Overdose in Botched Experiment

By Britni de la Cretaz 01/31/17

A mathematical error led to two students consuming the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee at once. 

Cups of coffee

It turns out there is such a thing as too much coffee. Two students at Northumbria University in England nearly died after scientists running a study they had volunteered for accidentally gave them a lethal dose of caffeine—that’s a big oops.

According to the BBC, the mistake was the result of grave negligence by the university, which allowed scientists who were “not experienced or competent enough” and who “had never done it on their own before” to administer the caffeine. Not only that, prosecutor Adam Farrer said, according to the BBC, "The university took no steps to make sure the staff knew how to do it."

The students had volunteered to participate in the study—which was supposed to measure the effects of caffeine on exercise—in March 2015. It called for the students to receive 0.3 grams of caffeine.

However, due to a mathematical error that occurred while using a mobile phone to calculate (apparently decimal points are tricky), they were instead given 30 grams—100 times the amount they were supposed to receive and the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee at once. (An average cup of coffee contains 0.1 grams of caffeine.)

The “lethal” dose of caffeine is considered to be 18 grams. In 2014, a high school student in Ohio died after ingesting too much powdered caffeine, the same form of caffeine used in the study.

Both student volunteers made a full recovery, but the effects were incredibly serious. According to The Telegraph, Alex Rossetto and Luke Parkin needed to spend several days in the hospital and were put on dialysis. Both experienced rapid weight loss of more than 20 pounds, and Rossetto also suffered short-term memory loss.

They each made a full recovery, but they could have died. Other side effects of caffeine overdose include hallucinations, heart palpitations (cardiac arrhythmia), nausea, vomiting and fever, among others.

In Newcastle Crown Court, the school said it was "deeply, genuinely sorry" and paid a £400,000 (nearly $500,000) fine. Defense attorney Peter Smith said the university wished to "emphasize that they take the welfare of their students and staff seriously.”

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.