Judge Greenlights Lawsuit Alleging Heavy Metals in Baby Food Linked to Autism, ADHD

Judge Greenlights Lawsuit Alleging Heavy Metals in Baby Food Linked to Autism, ADHD By Julie Comber, Ph.D. for Children’s Health Defense 

A lawsuit alleging baby food manufacturers knew their products contained high levels of heavy metals will advance to trial after a California judge ruled the science behind the plaintiffs’ claims is sound.

A lawsuit alleging baby food manufacturers knew their products contained high levels of heavy metals will advance to trial.

Judge Amy D. Hogue for the Superior Court of the State of California on May 24 ruled the plaintiffs’ experts used sound scientific evidence to argue that heavy metals found in certain baby foods can cause autism spectrum disorder (“autism”) and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed in September 2021 by the parents of Noah Cantabrana, now 8 years old, alleging Noah developed autism and ADHD after consuming significant amounts of baby foods from companies named in the suit.

Those companies are: Beech-Nut Nutrition Company; Gerber Products Company; Hain Celestial Group, Inc. (Earth’s Best Organic); Nurture, Inc. (Happy Family Organics and Happy Baby); Plum, PMC (Plum Organics); Sprout Foods, Inc. (Sprout Organic Food); and Walmart – Parent’s Choice.

The Cantabranas’ case is the first personal injury lawsuit related to heavy metals in baby foods in California, and the first case of its kind in the U.S. to proceed to trial.

Judge Hogue’s ruling followed a Sargon hearing held earlier this year. According to Baum Hedlund law firm, which is representing Noah’s family, “A Sargon hearing allows the legal teams for the plaintiffs and the defendants in a lawsuit to present their experts and educate the court on the science that underpins their arguments.”

“Sargon” refers to the California Supreme Court case Sargon Enterprises, Inc. v. University of Southern Cal. (2012) 55 Cal.4th 747. This type of hearing encourages courts to act as the gatekeeper for which scientific evidence is admissible in court.

Judge Hogue split the Sargon hearing into two parts. The plaintiffs presented their experts over four days from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, 2022. The defendants presented their experts on March 14.

Judge Hogue ruled all the experts for the plaintiffs used sound logic and valid methodologies to argue that heavy metals can cause autism and ADHD in children.

The case will now move to the discovery phase, which allows the plaintiffs to seek internal documents to help prove their case. These and other documents, such as transcripts and expert reports, will be posted online as they become publicly available.

In response to the ruling in favor of proceeding with the case, Baum Hedlund attorney Pedram Esfandiary said:

“We are pleased but not surprised by Judge Hogue’s ruling. The science is clear. We believe that once a jury hears the evidence, they will agree that baby food companies knowingly sell products with staggering amounts of arsenic, lead, and mercury and that exposure to these toxic metals caused our client to develop lifelong brain damage and neurological disorders.”

A brief history of heavy metal-contaminated baby food

An investigation led by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy sparked a number of lawsuits against baby food makers.

The committee’s report, issued Feb. 4, 2021, revealed high levels of toxic metals in baby food. Melissa Cantabrana, Noah’s mother, said she made the connection between her son’s neurodevelopmental disorders and baby food after reading the report.

“I was just like blown away,” Cantabrana said in an interview with “Spotlight on America.” “It made me really angry … to think that these heavy metals are in baby food. And I immediately thought we don’t have autism in our family. I instantly knew this is it.”

According to “Spotlight on America,” the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew about the issue with heavy metals in baby food for years before the 2021 House committee report, but failed to take meaningful action.

Sean Callan, chief operating officer at Ellipse Analytics in Denver, led the team that conducted the largest-ever analysis of baby foods, assessing for more than 130 contaminants and toxins.

Callan partnered on the testing with the nonprofit Clean Label Project, led by Jackie Bowen. They released the findings in October 2017. In February 2019, the findings were published in Science of the Total Environment, a peer-reviewed journal.

According to Callan and Bowen, they warned both the baby food companies and the FDA about the contaminants in baby food and formula, including heavy metals. Bowen said the initial interest in their results quickly fizzled.

In October 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) released “What’s in my baby’s food?” The report showed HBBF’s testing of 168 baby foods found 95% were contaminated with at least one of four highly toxic heavy metals: inorganic arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

Many products were contaminated with two or more of these metals.

In children, all four of these metals are known neurotoxins — substances that “particularly affect neurodevelopment and intellectual performance.”

The HBBF report prompted the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s investigation, which included asking seven baby food manufacturers to provide “internal testing policies, test results for ingredients and/or finished products, and documentation about what the companies did with ingredients and/or finished products that exceeded their internal testing limits.”

The committee’s February 2021 report was based on the documents provided by the baby food companies. According to the subcommittee’s report:

“Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function.”

Arsenic, a common groundwater contaminant in many areas, “is ranked number one among substances present in the environment that pose the most significant potential threat to human health,” according to the report. Lead ranks second, mercury third and cadmium seventh.

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