Girls Hitting Puberty at Younger & Younger Ages: Experts Say Exposure to Plastics and Insecticides M
n the 19th century, it was common for girls to reach the
age of menstruation around 17. In 1960, it was between the
ages of 12 and 13. Today in 2005, normal ages for a girl to
reach puberty are between 9 and 16, according to the National
Institutes of Health. However, a groundbreaking study conducted
back in 1997 made a startling discovery: girls appear to be
reaching puberty at younger and younger ages.
The study included data from 225 physicians who recorded
the growth of over 17,000 girls. It was found that:
Over 27 percent of African-American girls, and 6.7
percent of white girls showed signs of puberty including
breast or pubic hair development by the age of 7.
By the age of 8, 48.3 percent of African-American
girls and 14.7 percent of white girls had one or both
of these characteristics.
By the age of 3, 1 percent of whites and 3 percent
of African-Americans had such characteristics.
A small percentage of girls are reaching puberty as
young as 3 years old.
Dr. Marcia E. Herman-Giddens, the lead author of the study,
had this to say:
"The reason I did this study is that in my clinical
practice, I was seeing a lot of young girls coming in with
pubic hair and breast development, and it seemed like there
were too many, too young. But I don't think any of us expected
to see such a large proportion of girls developing this
The Environmental Debate
The study suggested that environmental chemicals that mimic
hormones might be involved in their findings.
"The possibility that the increasing use of certain
plastics and insecticides that degrade into substances that
have estrogen-related physiological effects on living things
should be investigated in relation to the earlier onset of
puberty," the researchers said.
Specifically, those chemicals include DDE, a breakdown of
the pesticide DDT, and compounds used to make plastics, including
bisphenol A, or BPA, and phthalates.
In Puerto Rico for example, early breast development--even
in children as young as 2--is an increasing problem. A study
in the area found that 41 girls who developed early had higher
phthalate levels in their blood than 35 girls who developed
at a normal age.
Where are these chemicals found? Plastic wrap, plastic storage
containers and toys contain phthalates that can outgas into
your food and air. With toys, small children may put them
in their mouths and ingest phthalates that way. However, personal
care products, including nail polish, mascara, fragrances,
shampoos and conditioners, lotions, hair growth formulations,
antiperspirants, and sunscreen, are a large exposure source.
Gum, candy and oral pharmaceuticals can also contain them.
And, "Thanks to their mothers' exposure, even babies
in the womb have measurable doses of the hormone-mimicking
chemicals," said Theo Colborn, author of "Our
Stolen Future," a book on endocrine disrupters.
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Bisphenol A may leach from clear plastic baby bottles.
"We have widespread exposure to bisphenol-A. It's in
practically everything. It's been found in blood throughout
the Northern hemisphere," said Colborn.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC), BPA--over 6 billion tons are used each year--is found
in 95 percent of people tested. Animal studies have linked
low doses of BPA to:
"Since these substances are known to disrupt in animals,
it's hard to imagine they wouldn't in humans," said Colborn.
However, industry and independent studies have found drastically
differing findings, raising the question of whether a conflict
of interest is at play.
Frederick vom Saal, a developmental biologist at the University
of Missouri, reviewed 115 studies about bisphenol A. While
more than 90 percent of the studies conducted by independent
scientists found adverse consequences, 11 out of 11 studies
conducted by the chemical industry did not.
Child Obesity Another Culprit
With increasing numbers of kids battling overweight and obesity,
fat has become another theory as to why girls are reaching
Factors in overweight children, such as increased amounts
of insulin, an increased ability to convert hormones into
estrogen, and an increased ability to store toxins in fat
may all contribute to early puberty.
The Real Damage of Early Puberty
Girls who reach puberty early have an increased risk of breast
cancer later in life.
"If you have a longer exposure to estrogen, the higher
the chance you'll develop breast cancer," says Herman-Giddens.
But there's another risk to girls, one of their ability to
handle a mature body at an immature age.
"From a psychosocial standpoint, you have a child who
looks sexually mature at an age where they can't make judgments
associated with their physical appearance. That's what really
worries the family," explains Dr. Gilbert August, a pediatric
endocrinologist in Washington, D.C.
Says Herman-Giddens, "This is a serious public health
issue. It's the canary in the coal mine."
Tips to Limit Your Exposure to These Chemicals
Store your food in glass containers instead of plastic.
Don't reheat your food in plastic containers or covered
in plastic wrap.
Look for phthalate-free plastic toys and containers.
chemical-free personal care items.
are More Boys than Girls Being Born?
What You Don't Know Can Indeed Hurt You
Vol. 99 No. 4 April 1997, pp. 505-512
Today: Early Puberty
Today: Debate Over a Leaching Plastics Chemical Heat Up
Healing Center: Puberty Too Early
are Reaching Puberty Early