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The Troubling Rise of Precocious Puberty

Posted Oct 16 2008 7:58pm

The other night over dinner with girlfriends one of them asked me why I give my two-year-old daughter milk and meat free of hormones--usually organic. One of the reasons I mentioned was that it might help prevent the start of early puberty. Suddenly, her mouth dropped open, and she explained that her neighbor recently noticed that her four-year-old daughter was growing pubic hair and developing breasts.

Sadly, this early bloomer is not alone. In fact, five percent of white girls and 15.4% of African-American girls between seven and eight years old are beginning to develop breasts. The onset of precocious puberty is mostly an issue for girls, especially minorities.

Young American girls today are having their childhoods significantly shortened compared to their mothers and grandmothers decades earlier. This disturbing trend has troubling consequences, including raising the risk of mental health problems and self-destructive behavior. It also significantly increases the risk of breast cancer. To better understand this phenomenon and help parents and society better protect our daughters, the Breast Cancer Fund recently commissioned a comprehensive review gathering all the literature available on the subject.

It found that girls who have their first period before the age of 12 increased their risk of breast cancer by 50 percent compared to those who get it at age 16. While the link is not completely understood, it is known that the younger a girl enters puberty the greater her exposure to estrogen, which is associated with breast cancer risk.

"For every year we could delay a girl's first menstrual period, we could prevent thousands of breast cancers," says the report's author Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and cancer survivor.

The report also cited other possible contributing factors of early puberty, including: obesity; endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in certain plastics, shampoos, body lotions and cleaning products; psychosocial stress, such as family dysfunction; formula feeding; physical inactivity; and too much television.

To help prevent early puberty, Steingraber recommends that parents combat obesity in their children, pregnant woman eliminate exposures to toxic chemicals, and everyone work together to eliminate endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as bisphenol A and phthalates. She also encourages reducing children's exposure to hormonally active residues of pesticide as well as animal hormones and antibiotics.

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