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What’s the connection between acetaminophen and autism?

On Behalf of | May 22, 2023 | Dangerous Drugs

A United States judicial panel recently took 18 different cases and consolidated them for multidistrict litigation in the Southern District of New York. Pregnant women may want to take note. The cases all claim that someone should have warned pregnant women about the risks of acetaminophen.

As the judicial panel notes, the cases all share several key questions about the use of acetaminophen and how it may affect a developing fetus. They all involve women who used acetaminophen while they were pregnant. They all had children who developed autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They claim someone should have informed them of the risks.

What is acetaminophen?

The first thing to note is that acetaminophen is a common drug. Many people know it by the common brand name, Tylenol. It is available over-the-counter for use as a pain reliever, and most doctors consider it safe when used appropriately. However, there are risks associated with all drug use, and the women behind the recent lawsuits frequently used the drug for an extended period. They were unaware that their unborn children might be born with neurological differences.

The science reveals a connection

The cases all hinge on the connections between acetaminophen, ASD and ADHD. That means the science will be critical. So, what does it say?

The independent fact checkers at examined a slew of different research papers and arguments. As they report, the papers reveal a clear connection between continued or high-dosage use of the drug and ASD and ADHD. However, the fact checkers also note that the studies are less clear about causation. They point out that others have argued that there are more factors in question than just acetaminophen use.

The lawsuits revolve around three common questions

As part of its decision to consolidate the lawsuits into a mass tort, the judicial panel said it found that the cases all centered around three common questions of fact:

  • If a mother’s prenatal acetaminophen use can cause her unborn baby to develop ASD or ADHD
  • If and when the defendants should have known about the studies that revealed the dangers
  • Whether the businesses who provided acetaminophen to the pregnant mothers had a responsibility to warn them

Importantly, the judicial panel said that these common concerns qualified the cases for multidistrict litigation, even though the defendants preferred to keep the cases separate. The panel said the common concerns outweighed the defendants’ arguments about the factual differences between each specific case.

No final verdict

The courts have only recently consolidated these cases. Accordingly, at the time of writing, they have not yet reached any verdicts in the cases. The courts have not yet decided if the science shows that acetaminophen use can cause ASD and ADHD. They have not yet decided if several sellers should have known better and warned pregnant women against higher doses or prolonged use.

That means we may still see other mothers file similar lawsuits. And it means that pregnant women should use acetaminophen “cautiously” with the smallest possible dose. And that’s only if they use it at all. They may want to rethink using a pain reliever today if it may cause their child’s ASD or ADHD in the future.

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