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University apologises for giving students the caffeine equivalent to 300 cups of coffee

Business Insider Australia logo Business Insider Australia 26/01/2017 Lindsay Dodgson


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Two students have suffered life-threatening effects from caffeine after being given 100 times the amount they were supposed to in a research experiment, reports the BBC.

At Northumbria University, sports science students Alex Rossetta and Luke Parkin were each given the huge amount when taking part in a study about the effect of caffeine on exercise.

They were supposed to be given 0.3 grams of caffeine, but a misplaced decimal point meant they were administered 30 grams. This is the equivalent of 300 cups of coffee.

According to the BBC, during the court case the prosecutor Adam Farrer said the overdose "could easily have been fatal." Both students were admitted to intensive care and had to receive dialysis -- the medical procedure of removing waste and excess water from the blood when your kidneys can't cope.

The side effects the students experiences were described as "violent" and included blurred vision, shaking, and massive weight loss. Thankfully they made full recoveries, apart from Rosetta experiencing memory loss. According to Farrer, people have died from taking in 18 grams of caffeine.

The mistake was partly due to inexperience of the staff doing the procedure, and recently switching from using caffeine tablets to powder.

"The staff were not experienced or competent enough and they had never done it on their own before," Farrer said. "The university took no steps to make sure the staff knew how to do it."

The university told Newcastle Crown Court it was "deeply, genuinely sorry" for what happened. Peter Smith, who was defending, said the university wished to "emphasise that they take the welfare of their students and staff seriously."

How much caffeine is too much?

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Caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychoactive drug in the world, and it's mostly harmless when we drink it in moderation in coffee and tea.

According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 400 milligrams of caffeine a day is a safe amount for most healthy adults, which is roughly the amount you'd get from four cups of coffee, 10 cans of cola or two "energy shot" drinks.

However, the clinic also states that it's not a good idea to give caffeine in any form to children, and teenagers shouldn't exceed 100mg a day.

If you do happen to binge on the coffee, you can get some unpleasant side effects such as insomnia, restlessness, an upset stomach, a racing heartbeat, and muscle tremors. Some people are more sensitive than others too, and so require a lot less to feel jittery.

Overall, it's quite hard to do a lot of caffeine-related damage by drinking coffee and eating chocolate, but there's a disturbing trend in the US currently of buying powdered caffeine online, which can be a lot more dangerous.

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One 500g bag -- which my colleague Kevin Loria was recently able to order online for a story -- contains the equivalent caffeine of 2,500 to 5,000 cups of coffee. One teaspoon alone contains the same amount as about 28 cups!

In response to two deaths in the US from people apparently overdosing on powdered caffeine, the US Food and Drug Administration released a warning in 2015 which it stated that powdered caffeine was dangerous because it could be easy to overdose on the substance. Nevertheless, powdered caffeine is still available from numerous onlinevendors.

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