Early Puberty: Another Sign of Our (Chemical) Times?

Elise Miller, MEd
Director

A major study released earlier this week in Pediatrics concluded that girls are starting puberty earlier than ever. (See the New York Times article or the full text of the study). Though early puberty is influenced by multiple and interacting factors, including heredity, socioeconomic status, obesity, premature birth, formula feeding and more, synthetic chemicals, particularly those that can disrupt our bodies’ normal hormonal messaging systems from conception onward, are increasingly considered contributors to this growing concern.

Controversy about whether earlier puberty was in fact happening was significantly heightened after a study suggesting similar findings was published in Pediatrics in 1997. However, questions about the association between chemical exposures and health problems from breast cancer to reproductive abnormalities can easily be dated back to the time of Rachel Carson’s research. Dr. Sandra Steingraber’s 2007 report, “The Falling Age of Puberty: What We Know, What We Need to Know,” commissioned by the Breast Cancer Fund, was based on a comprehensive review of the literature on the timing of puberty. Given the scientific evidence, the report recommended a set of actions—from improving the built environment to encourage physical activity to making healthy food more accessible to reducing the use of endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as phthalates and bisphenol A, in consumer products. What is notable about these recommendations is that they could curb not only the worrisome implications of earlier and earlier puberty, but a plethora of other chronic diseases and disabilities that currently plague our country.

Given it is far harder to turn an ocean liner around than a row boat, many leading thinkers underscore the need for creative solutions to be generated on the community level in order to develop effective, sustainable models. One such person is Wilma Subra, a leading resource scientist for low-income communities in the Gulf Coast. Michael Lerner will interview Dr. Subra on our CHE Partnership call tomorrow (visit the call page to RSVP). Other leaders emphasize that reforming our chemical regulatory system on a national level must be a priority. Action is also being taken along those lines with the introduction of “Toxic Chemicals Safety Act” in the House just late last month (see CHE’s Chemical Policy Reform webpage).

At whatever level you choose to approach this work, the study on early puberty published in Pediatrics this week only affirms that we, in fact, already know what we need to do. The harder part is how to do it—how to implement effective and strategic interventions at all these levels of society. As a CHE partner, we hope you will continue to participate in our calls and working groups to help us collectively figure out what we can do now to ensure that health is a birthright, not an afterthought.

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