Green City: Early puberty’s toxic causes and effects


GREEN CITY As if growing up weren’t hard enough, a new report published by San Francisco’s Breast Cancer Fund says girls, particularly African American girls, are hitting puberty earlier — and it’s lasting longer.

Environmental toxins, obesity, and psychological stressors are all cited as possible reasons for the trend in the report written by Ithaca College professor Sandra Steingraber. It was commissioned about a year ago to put together what she calls "pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle."

Steingraber found that many girls now start to develop breasts as early as eight years old — two years earlier than they did a few decades ago. On average, however, girls begin menstruating only a few months earlier than they once did — making puberty a lengthier process.

The consequences of growing up too soon are serious — depression and anxiety, eating disorders, sexual objectification, and early drug and alcohol abuse are just a few.

"As a mother of a nine-year-old girl," Steingraber says, "I was really impressed by the consequences, not just the causes. The world is not a good place for early-maturing girls."

The implications are not just psychological. According to Steingraber’s report, menarche before age 12 raises breast cancer risk by 50 percent.

"The data is pretty ample linking the two," she says. "The earlier a girl gets her breasts, the wider the estrogen window." Longer lifetime exposure to estrogen increases the risk of developing many forms of breast cancer.

Steingraber points to obesity and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (toxins that interfere with the hormonal system) as major factors in the new puberty equation. Phthalates, bisphenol A, and dioxin are a few of the culprits often cited by environmental health advocates as contributors to earlier puberty onset. These chemicals are often found in cosmetics and personal care products like shampoo, hand lotion, and sunscreen. They are also used in pesticides.

Dr. Tracey Woodruff, associate professor of reproductive health and environment at UC San Francisco, says the link has been researched and discussed anecdotally in scientific circles for the past 10 years, with the last major report issued in 1997.

A big obstacle to keeping kids safe, Woodruff says, is that most consumer products are not required to undergo US Food and Drug Administration approval before they are sold to the public, nor are companies required to disclose all ingredients.

"How chemicals are governed is somewhat archaic," Woodruff says.

Environmental health activists agree. In 2002 a national coalition of nonprofit organizations launched the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, an initiative to educate the public and influence policy. Marisa Walker of the Breast Cancer Fund — a founding member organization — says manufacturers jump through big loopholes in federal law to hide ingredients by claiming that chemicals are trade secrets.

An Environmental Protection Agency–administered program to test new chemicals was created more than a decade ago, but progress has been slow at best. In June the EPA announced it was still seeking comment on a draft list of 73 pesticides to be evaluated under the new screening program. Chemicals in consumer products are not slated for review.

The program has received widespread criticism, and in September the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform issued a letter to the EPA expressing its concern: "EPA’s actions have been a continued failure to protect the American public from these chemicals." The seven-page letter also requests that the EPA take immediate action.

Meanwhile, Woodruff, Steingraber, and many environmental health advocates point to Europe and neighboring Canada as better models of protecting consumer health. Their policies have a heavier emphasis on precaution. Woodruff says prevention can mean the difference between responding to a change in hormone levels and coping with a birth defect.

"At what point is there enough information to take action?" Steingraber asks. "Chemicals are turning up in the urine of some of these girls, and while more research needs to be done, we can’t even do more research until the industry gives us more data. The time of saying, ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting,’ is over. It’s time to take action." *