Vernon Coxhead leads you down the garden path and unlocks the door of his secure factory.

Inside you're reminded of the DIY lab in TV's Breaking Bad. There's the whiff of fresh, white paint still drying on the walls, water being pumped through clear hosing by electric currents and a floor-to-ceiling wall of plastic white containers.

The containers are waiting to be filled, stamped with the new Te Kiri Gold logo, a symbol of hope - designed by Coxhead - that will be couriered to cancer sufferers around the world.

READ MORE:
Medical experts versus hope
'If I had cancer I wouldn't drink this'
Meads: 'Didn't say drink was cancer cure'

Advertisement

Before we get down to business the jovial cow cocky insists we have a cappuccino ("cuppakeeno"as he pronounces it) from his shiny, new Nespresso machine.

"This is the only new thing we bought for the office, I know you Aucklanders like your cappuccinos. It's the only type of coffee I've learnt to make."

Before we can take a first sip, there's a knock at the door. It's opened to three smiling faces armed with home-baked brownies.

"These are the girls from Okato," says Coxhead. "They come for morning tea every Thursday."

They were early converts to Te Kiri Gold and continue to swear by it.

None of them want to be identified but each has their own story of renewal.

One woman with terminal liver cancer says drinking Te Kiri Gold makes her "feel great".

Her friend has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair. She says although the water tastes like "Janola and salt" she can feel new sensation in her feet and and hot and cold temperatures. Their friend was at death's door at the end of last year but after four weeks of drinking Te Kiri Gold claims she's well enough to be operated on.

Coxhead wasn't expecting a visit from the Herald. We turned up at his base in Opunake, 60km south of New Plymouth round the Taranaki coast road, uninvited. The arrival of the girls from Okato wasn't for our benefit.

The trio heard about Te Kiri Gold by "word of mouth", the way he likes it.

"We have people turning up every day. I don't advertise. I think they like to come and meet us to be reassured who is behind this. They see we are normal people trying to do the best we can."

Coxhead says that most of his clients are terminal and have exhausted all medical treatments.

"They are desperate, they've been told to get their affairs in order. So what do you do? You have to help them."

Salt extracted from Te Kiri Gold water at Massey University laboratory. Photo / Supplied
Salt extracted from Te Kiri Gold water at Massey University laboratory. Photo / Supplied
O

punake has had its fair share of headline-makers.

Despite a population not far into four figures, the small farming community with a black sand holiday beach on the south Taranaki coast has produced Olympic legend Peter Snell, former PM Jim Bolger and All Blacks Graham Mourie and Carl Hayman.

Coxhead, 54, was born and bred here. He and wife Jenny were childhood sweethearts who met at the local high school.

"She's my first wife. I'm still looking for my second," he says with a belly laugh. You get the feeling it's a well-rehearsed line about their 34-year marriage but it still manages to get a rise.

The couple's 630-acre farm has been in the family for a century. Coxhead bought it from his parents in 1984 and transformed it into an organic dairy operation. He and Jenny raised four children here. The youngest, 32-year-old Michelle, helps with admin as the Te Kiri Gold business grows, taking calls, doing paperwork and dispatching orders around the globe. At the moment Coxhead says there are over hundred customers using Te Kiri Gold but it's hard to pinpoint exactly how many. "It's hard to know because it varies,- as people get well they stop taking and numbers drop off".

After news broke that Sir Colin Meads was drinking it as part of his battle against pancreatic cancer, Coxhead described it as a "game changer"for cancer patients.

Te Kiri Gold was developed after Coxhead started "playing"with the idea of sanitising water three years ago.

He has no medical background. As well as overseeing his farm, he's worked for Corkill Systems, a local company that designs and supplies "dairy automation solutions". It was there he learnt how electrical currents could affect water.

"I used to make it in my pumps shed," says Coxhead. "I set up a dose for cows, then we put doses in our water and that's how we got into it.

"My friend Andy from the UK helps me with research. We met each other in our vat monitoring business. He saw what I was doing when he was out here so I did a trial which proved we could sanitise water.

"It's just made of salt water and electricity - there are not many ingredients in it but it's the way it's made."

Vern experimented on his cows first then his grandkids.

"I have 14 of them," he teases. "But I knew it was safe."

Te Kiri Gold's website says it's an "an organic liquid, manufactured from the same ingredients and in a similar manner, to the way that your body creates your immune system components".

It also notes: "Any claims of improvement in well-being, tumor [sic] reduction or cancer remission on this site are made by people whom have taken TKG and not by staff or shareholders of Te Kiri Gold."

Its efficacy is unproven. So too its safety.

A test commissioned by the Herald and carried out by Hill Laboratories, which has the seal of International Accreditation New Zealand, found it did not meet New Zealand's safe drinking water standards and contained high amounts of free chlorine and salt.

Analysis of the results by Dr Nick Kim, from Massey University's school of public health, concluded the sample tested contained 220 times the amount of free chlorine found in drinking water. Drinking the maximum recommended daily dose - 600ml - for the full eight-week programme would see consumers digest half a kilo of salt, which could be harmful to kidneys, heart and blood pressure.

Kim says the sample contained the same free chlorine content as a 3 per cent solution of household bleach.

Coxhead says the chlorine used in Te Kiri Gold (hypochlorous acid) is different to the free chlorine tested in the laboratory. Kim says it's the "same thing and the level was still high".

Sir Colin Meads will continue drinking Te Kiri Gold. Photo / Photosport
Sir Colin Meads will continue drinking Te Kiri Gold. Photo / Photosport

A list of instructions that comes with postal orders says the water starts killing cancer cells immediately and patients will "feel better" for the first days.

But there's a warning that symptoms could worsen between day three and week four.

"We believe this is caused by the breakdown of cancer cells and the body's need to process and excrete toxins being released," the instructions say.

Kim says that if hypochlorite gets into the bloodstream it could kill cells relatively indiscriminately - it could kill some cancer cells but damage ordinary cells too.

Coxhead concedes he's trying to reduce the amount of sodium in his "latest batch".

"I think if you test a bottle now it would be less, but at the same time I have to have the hypochlorous acid do its job. It's very tricky.

"I am not a scientist or a doctor and it worries me that if I change something it may no longer work and I need to give it to people who need it now.

"So the salt might be high for a short period of time but dying of cancer isn't too flash either."

Although he prefers the "word of mouth"approach, Coxhead made an exception for fellow farmer Sir Colin Meads.

"I went to see Sir Colin because he's like our king. It broke my heart when I saw the Pinetree was about to fall. I knew I could help him so I did. My son said, 'Dad, you're not taking him a bottle of TKG, you're taking him a bottle of life'."

Sir Colin told the Herald on Sunday last month that the water tasted "bloody terrible -- like drinking water from a chlorinated swimming pool".

The taste test was borne out by the lab test.

But Sir Colin is adamant the "magic water"has improved his quality of life".

"If you saw me seven months ago I looked totally different. I was in a bad way for a long time. I couldn't walk 20 yards without falling over."

Coxhead says generally speaking his clients are "terminal and have been through the cancer treatment process".

"A lady who had cervical cancer drank the water and was clear in 10 days. Another man with a melanoma on the top of his head was so bad you could see his skull. After drinking TKG for three weeks he came back, took his hat off - it was gone."

Vernon Coxhead is the producer of the controversial Te Kiri Gold water. Photo / Mike Scott
Vernon Coxhead is the producer of the controversial Te Kiri Gold water. Photo / Mike Scott
C

oxhead says Te Kiri Gold changes the molecular structure of the immune system so the water can penetrate to the bone, then to the cancer cells.

Kim's analysis wryly concludes that analytical chemistry measurements cannot detect any "mystical properties that the solution might be held to possess, such as ability to alter the quantum structure of the water".

Hope v science. Faith against fact.

The Ministry of Health says any product making therapeutic claims is regulated under the Medicines Act 1981. The Act says any medicine must undergo a rigorous assessment and gain approval for use before it can be generally supplied and advertised in New Zealand. It says Te Kiri Gold has not been through a clinical trial or submitted an application for one.

Cancer Society medical director Dr Chris Jackson says because Te Kiri Gold is not licensed the society would not recommend it.

"Any organisation selling a medical treatment that claims to cure cancer, before they have been through clinical trials to test and prove safety and effectiveness, is misleading and potentially dangerous."

Consumer New Zealand says all companies have a legal obligation to ensure their products are safe. Companies that mislead consumers about a product's benefits face fines of up to $600,000 under the Fair Trading Act.

Coxhead describes conversations with the Ministry of Health as "encouraging".

"Because it's not a drug it can't be in a medical trial. "This is a part of our natural body -- it's not a drug."

He says consumers have to sign an informed consent form containing medical details that is monitored closely by Coxhead and Doctor Mitch Feller, his business partner.

"We don't want to hurt anybody, we know it's intrinsically safe. We also don't want to break the law."

The full eight-week programme costs about $1600.

Coxhead says he agonised about having to charge but can't afford to keep giving it away.

Asked whether it's ethical and moral to give false hope to the sick and vulnerable, he says: "There is no such thing as false hope. You either have hope or you have none. Whether you are a skeptic or a believer, the fact is when they turn up at my door I have to face them. I have to make sure I do everything by the book -- make no claims and manufacture it the best I can. The biggest fear is we will get shut down by someone and we have to stop helping people. I don't want anyone coming to my door and I have to say 'I can't help you'."