Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Mysteries of the magic water man

Another snake oil salesman exposed.....


Mysteries of the magic water man

April 16, 2005

Unique water seemed too good to be true to begin with - and the story just keeps getting stranger. Ben Hills reports.

Cristina Marcon says her eczema has cleared up. Mark Fitzharris believes his multiple sclerosis is much better. Milton (Mickey) Macdonald declares that his arthritis pain has gone away.

Three people scattered across the mid-Canadian province of Ontario with one thing in common: their belief that a brand of bottled mineral water invented by an Australian can cure all manner of ailments, and their use of the internet to promote it.

Their emails can be accessed from the websites of Aqua Gilgamesh - named after the mythological Babylonian god-king of Uruk, slayer of Humbaba the Terrible and the Bull of Heaven - whose properties, if one believes the publicity, are equally awesome.

For $C50 ($52) a carton, one can obtain a supply of this water. The website - which notes it has no scientific trials on which to base any therapeutic or nutritional claims - lists dozens of conditions for which the water should be of benefit, from Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases to diabetes, arthritis and psoriasis.

Ring a bell?

It should, because in April 2002 the same water featured on the cover of the Herald's Good Weekend magazine (claimed readership 1.8 million) under the headline "Miracle Water? Can something as simple as this mineral-rich water really combat arthritis, fatigue and osteoporosis ... help you live longer?"

That article, by Paul Sheehan, a devotee of the water who believes it helped him to health after suffering from a "constellation of auto-immune diseases", still features prominently on the Aqua Gilgamesh website.

Although it did caution that no medical trials had been conducted to test the efficacy of the water, that endorsement by Sheehan - and the five other people, one dog and one cat (deceased) whom he cited in the article as having benefited from the water - was picked up by the TV networks and triggered a gold rush for the manufacturer of what was then called Unique Water.

Queues of up to 600 sick people - some of them in wheelchairs, some using walking-sticks - formed outside the premises of Bert's Soft Drinks in the southern Sydney bayside suburb of Taren Point, then the only place the water could be obtained.

In the hysteria, people drove from Melbourne to obtain supplies. Customers were rationed to three cases each (a case, then costing $30, contains 24 600ml plastic bottles). Dennis Shelley, a director of the family-owned bottling company, was quoted in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader as saying that 10,000 cases had been sold in a single day, $300,000 worth.

The success of the water must have brought a smile to the face of its inventor, a 54-year-old veterinarian named Russell John Beckett, who was quoted copiously, largely uncritically, throughout the article. Sheehan says he spent two months fact-checking the article, producing an 8000-word commentary containing 42 sources, to satisfy his editors on the credibility of Beckett's claims.

However, much appears to have been overlooked.

Beckett told interviewers he had stumbled over the "miracle water" as a result of decades of research he had conducted into long-lived sheep and cattle on properties in the Monaro region of NSW.

He somehow concluded that they lived longer because there was naturally occurring magnesium carbonate (a chemical commonly used in medicine for upset stomachs) in the creek water, rather than because of their genes or good husbandry.

What made his views more credible were the scientific qualifications Beckett said he had. Beckett was described as "a former practising vet with an honours degree in veterinary science and a doctorate in biochemical pathology from Sydney University".

Sydney University does not offer such a doctorate. It says that Beckett's PhD is in veterinary science.

Nor does his claim that he had spent most of his life researching how life may be prolonged bear scrutiny. His master's and PhD theses are both available from the university's Fisher Library.

They show he was more interested in the dead than the living. He was awarded his doctorate in 1985 for experiments in which he poisoned sheep and cattle with dried, ground-up rock ferns, autopsied them and published gory pictures of their dissected organs.

As another boost to his believability, Beckett claimed the CSIRO had also been studying the phenomenon of "supersheep" in the Monaro region since 1955. However, the research was on identifying a gene associated with fecundity, the number of offspring a sheep can have, not the number of years it will live, said a spokesperson.

Beckett also said that he was working with the University of Canberra on a scientific paper on the water to be submitted to New Scientist magazine.

No such research had been done, and no paper was ever published, said a university spokesperson - its only contact with Beckett had been providing him with geological data on the Monaro region.

The magazine also reported that the amount of "actual clinical trialling" had been "limited". In fact there has been none at all, as Aqua Gilgamesh's latest websites make clear: "Conducting high-quality, professional clinical trials for the treatment of specific diseases is a very expensive and time-consuming process. Aqua G [another name for the water] is currently negotiating and researching [this]."

Beckett has been talking almost since the day his water was launched on an unsuspecting public about conducting proper "double-blind" trials (in which neither the patient nor the researcher knows who is getting the real thing, and who is getting the placebo) to be peer-reviewed and published in a reputable scientific journal - the only kind of science the regulatory authorities will accept or the public should believe.

Dr Daniel Lewis, an expert in rheumatoid arthritis and director of the Lewis Institute for Health and Wellbeing in Melbourne wishes he would hurry up. Lewis has been waiting for two years for $200,000 Beckett led him to believe would be forthcoming for clinical trials to be conducted in conjunction with Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Lewis conducted a pilot study with the water on 50 arthritis patients, and found that about one-third of them reported feeling better.

However, he says this could be because when patients are paying for their own treatment, up to half of them report their condition has improved even when they have been taking the useless placebo.

Lewis is angry because some of his patients are still spending a small fortune on Unique Water (the recommended "dose" is two litres a day, about $5 worth) eating up their budget for other treatments that may be effective. "I believe it is garbage, but we need clinical trials to show that it is garbage - that is a fabulous and important health message that needs to get out," Lewis said.

Beckett told Sheehan that rather than pay for clinical trials he had chosen to pay for his water to be patented in Australasia and the US.

Although Sheehan acknowledged that the patent process did not involve testing the product, much was made in the article about how the patenting process involved "scientific review" and "peer review" and how this was the first patent granted in the world for "slowing the ageing process and increasing our length of life".

If any media had contacted IP Australia (the patent-granting body) they would have been told, as this reporter was, by Malcolm Royal, president of the Institute of Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys of Australia, that "patents are generally granted without any examination of whether or not the invention works - the only exception I am aware of is perpetual motion machines".

He said patents had been granted for preposterous products such as cheese which it was claimed would never go rotten and a vacuum cleaner which was operated by the motion of a rocking-chair. "Particularly with pharmaceutical drugs there is frequently charlatan-type behaviour in patenting products that don't work as a selling point," Royal said.

It's not as if Beckett does not have the money to fund proper clinical trials.

A month after the Good Weekend article was published, a company was formed, Unique Water Australia Pty Ltd, one of six companies with which Beckett is associated. The directors and shareholders are Beckett and his son Lachlan, and Dennis Shelley and his brother Arthur - however, there is no record of its income, or how it was split.

Since those first few heady weeks, sales of Unique Water appear to have slowed - some BP service stations have stopped stocking it. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that the product came under a three-pronged investigation - by the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, and finally the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission which forced Beckett to remove the more outrageous therapeutic claims from his website.

(The water is now, incidentally, marketed under the slogan "Too Good to be True" - the same marketing spiel used by Christopher Skase to sell his Mirage resorts at Port Douglas and the Gold Coast before his empire imploded in a billion dollars' worth of debt).

Whatever the current sales, the water is fabulously profitable, if nothing else. A box of 24 600 millilitre bottles (14.4 litres) costs $30 from Bert's today - $2.08 a litre. 15 litres of a brand of spring water such as JustPure costs $9, or 60 cents a litre. So for the addition of a few cents' worth of magnesium bicarbonate there should be nearly $1.50 a litre pure profit in Unique Water - about $200,000 for that single day when 10,000 cases were sold.

It is therefore curious that Dennis Shelley should have told the Herald after the original article appeared (he would not comment for this article) that he had spent more than $1 million on a new bottling plant for the water and had not recouped his money. Perhaps he was unhappy that his daughter, Tanya, had departed with Beckett for North America - and that Sheehan recently resurrected unproven allegations about the suspected suicide of Beckett's first wife, Robyn.

In fact, the whereabouts of Russell Beckett is as mysterious as the miracles wrought by his water. Neither phone calls to the house in Red Hill, Canberra, where he has been living - which appears to be empty - nor emails to an address shared by him and his son, were answered.

His friend, Jim Watts, ran into him in Canberra last October and got the impression he was moving to Canada - and, indeed, that is where he had launched Unique Water in its new incarnation as Aqua Gilgamesh.

The Aqua G website turned out to be registered to Tanya Shelley, of Unique Global Possibilities, who gave an address care of a law firm in Sacramento, California. She did not respond to telephone calls, emails, or a request passed on through the law firm to discuss the water.

Gilgamesh gives an address in the small town of Cornwall, Ontario, where Beckett's miracle water was being produced by a company called Iroquois Water on a Mohawk reserve - the company is jointly owned by native Canadians and the large Canadian bottling company, Cott Corporation.

However, the company has been closed for some time, and the only stocks seem to be owned by a Toronto distribution company called HanTech. A man who identified himself as Jay You (Gilgamesh has a Korean-language option on its website) said he owned the company but had not received fresh supplies for six months. He had been trying with no success to locate Beckett.

Beckett's last media romp was early last year when he did an interview with a local indigenous TV station in which he again said that clinical trials were to be conducted - this time at "Berkley". Needless to say, the University of California's Berkeley campus had never heard of Dr Beckett.

And there the trail grows cold.

There is one final curiosity. In the 4000-word article, Good Weekend did not quote one independent scientist as either endorsing or cautioning against Unique Water. The closest it got was Beckett's friend Watts, who is also a disciple of the water.

Paul Sheehan says this was because in two months' research he could not find a scientist who was willing to be quoted.

Well, here are three:

Dr Hayden Lloyd Davies, former dean of the faculty of veterinary science at Sydney University, who knew Beckett as an undergraduate: "It's pure, unqualified bullshit. The man is genuinely self-deluded."

Dr Richard Gordon, medical spokesman for Australian Skeptics, which shortlisted Unique Water for its Bent Spoon award, named after the Israeli illusionist Uri Geller: "There is a well-known saying: the plural of anecdote is not evidence. All journalists should be required to read two books, How We Know What Isn't So by Thomas Gilovich and Why People Believe Weird Things - Pseudoscience, Superstition and other Confusions of Our Time by Michael Shermer. If they did there would not be so many funny articles [written]."

Dr Mark Wahlquist, world-renowned nutritionist at Monash University, interviewed on ABC TV's Catalyst program: "My first instinct on reading about the work of Russell Beckett was it's another silly story. (but now) I think that it's worth pursuing further."

But perhaps the last word should go to Beckett, speaking on the same program: "Because I didn't go through conventional gateways, therefore I could be put into the category of being a snake oil salesman."

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