CPCHE Partner urges inclusion of ‘developmental toxicants’ reference in toy standard

When the standard-setting organization Underwriters Laboratories (UL) asked CPCHE for feedback on its draft sustainability criteria for toys, Barbara McElgunn was very willing and able to help.  

Barbara has been the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada (LDAC) representative to CPCHE since CPCHE was created in 2001. She has been researching, writing, testifying and advocating for better understanding of the effects of neurotoxicants on childhood development for over thirty years. 

The roots of her life-long exploration can be traced to two preoccupations while living in Montreal back in the 1960’s. One was her post-graduate specialization in neurology at the Montreal Neurology Institute. The other was as a mother of a young family. 

“Two of our boys developed learning disabilities,” Barbara recounts. “One of them had speech delays and was a bit clumsy, so we knew it was brain-based.  The other was showing up with reading problems in school.” 

“We all thought we could fix it through education at that point. I worked very closely with the ‘special-ed’ people in the schools and I was all involved in the education part. But then I thought ‘you know we’ve got to look at this from a medical standpoint, from a neurological standpoint’.”

So in 1979, Barbara wrote the article “The Need for Medical Research” which was published in the Journal of Learning Disabilities. This, in turn, led to an invitation the following year to join the recently-created Scientific Studies Committee of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. 

Two years later, Barbara became president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada where she has championed the removal of lead from gasoline, advocated for developmental neurotoxicity testing of priority chemicals to protect brain development, helped develop OECD test guidelines for neurotoxicity, and has worked on such issues as children's vulnerabilities to pesticides and endocrine disrupting chemicals, among others. 

“I don’t know how many chemicals come on the market every year, to get them on is so easy, but to get them off takes, well, it took almost 8 years to get lead out of gasoline!” she says.

In 2011, Barbara submitted a formal Petition to the Commissioner of Environment and Sustainable Development, co-sponsored by The Canadian institute of Child Health, entitled ‘The Lack of Regulatory Requirements for Developmental Toxicity Test Data: The need for developmental studies in chemical safety evaluations to protect foetuses, infants and children’ (Petition 322 at http://www.oag-bvg.gc.ca/internet/English/pet_lp_e_938.html).

“I think what sums it all up for me is the widespread reluctance to consider chemical exposures to the mother or child as possible preventable factors in learning disabilities, and in other brain-based conditions such as autism and ADHD, ” says Barbara. “Of all of the Canada Research Chairs that have been funded by government, there isn’t one devoted to neurotoxicology, an overlooked specialty in our universities, and in neuroscience/brain research. And there is very little attention to prenatal and early-life exposures to contaminants in the early child development research literature in Canada.

Meanwhile, it looks like Barbara has helped inject an ounce or two of prevention into the UL toy standard with their adoption of the provision: ‘Toys should not include ingredients that are known or suspected developmental toxicants or reproductive toxicants’.  If this standard is also adopted by Canada’s EcoLogo program, toy manufacturers will have to meet these requirements in order to get the environmental certification on their product labels. 

Even as Barbara prepares to retire from her role as health policy advisor to LDAC and from CPCHE, she clearly continues to be deeply involved in advancing the cause of children’s environmental health. She recently provided testimony on the use of BPA in packaging at a hearing held by Maine’s Bureau of Environmental Protection. The full text of her presentation, based in part on the CPCHE joint statement on BPA, can be found on their website. 


Barbara McElgunn may be contacted by email at: mcelgunnb@rogers.com