The mystery of early puberty

| August 10, 2010 | 7 Replies

A new study available from the journal Pediatrics (subscription required) shows that girls are entering puberty at steadily younger ages. WebMD explains:

The researchers assessed the onset of puberty by a standard measurement of breast development.

They compared the findings to a 1997 study of age of puberty. They found the following in a study involving girls between the ages of 6 and 8:

  • 10.4% of white girls in the current study had breast development, compared to 5% in the 1997 study.
  • 23.4% of African-American girls had breast development, compared to 15.4% in the 1997 study.

The early onset of puberty is found to be correlated with both race and body-mass index (BMI).  But what’s causing girls to enter puberty sooner?

The researchers also collected urine and blood specimens from the girls to look at levels of compounds called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, Biro says, to see what role these environmental exposures might play in early puberty.

”It appears that some of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals are interacting with body composition and this may be the reason some girls are going into puberty earlier and others later,” Biro tells WebMD. “That would have to be speculation,” he says of the interaction idea. “But we do know BMI is doing it.”

…Endocrine-disrupting compounds or EDCs are found in a host of consumer products, ranging from personal care products such as antibacterial soaps to furniture and anti-stain fabrics.

Yes, the same chemicals that saturate our environments are causing developmental changes in humans.  Or perhaps it’s caused a combination of these chemicals and their interaction with a few extra pounds (reflected in the BMI).  These are the types of unpredictable and unprecedented changes that the proliferation of untested, unregulated chemicals (and chemicals disguised as foodstuffs) throughout our lives can cause.  These are the sorts of dangers that the President’s Cancer Panel warned of earlier this year.   As a reminder, here are  the recommendations of the President’s Cancer Panel:

  • Protecting children by choosing foods, house and garden products, toys, medicines and medical tests that will minimize exposure to toxic substances.
  • Filtering tap water, and storing water in stainless steel, glass or other containers to avoid exposure to BPA and other plastic components that some studies have linked to health problems.
  • Buying produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, or washing it thoroughly to remove them.
  • Buying meat free of antibiotics and added hormones, and avoiding processed, charred and well-done meat.

And the recommendations from this new study?

Until more is known about what drives earlier puberty in girls, Biro suggests families try ”living greener, trying to minimize exposure to chemicals in the environment, and part of that might be using safer personal care products.”

Are you seeing the common pattern?  If not, here are a couple of other items to consider:

“Our findings suggest that we may need to go back to healthier diets that are more holistic,” Abdelmalek said. “High fructose corn syrup, which is predominately in soft-drinks and processed foods, may not be as benign as we previously thought.”

The consumption of fructose has increased exponentially since the early 1970s, and with this rise, an increase in obesity and complications of obesity have been observed, Abdelmalek said.

But not all the news is bad.  Researchers are also finding benefits that accrue when following a more traditional type of diet like the one recommended by the researchers above:

I suppose I had better stop writing now, I’d hate to be accused of being “orthorexic“, or obsessed with healthy eating. Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetic Association’s mental health group, explains:

“Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal. They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”

Then again, I guess maybe I should accept the label.  Apparently, with the release of the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, virtually everyone has some sort of mental disorder:

The journal’s [Journal of Mental Health] editor, Professor Til Wykes of King’s College London, fears that, “most of these changes {to the manual} imply a more inclusive system of diagnoses where the pool of normality shrinks to a mere puddle.”

If normal behaviour is increasingly being categorised as mental illness then that creates a burden on individuals, families and on society as a whole.

As well as an emotional and social toll, there are financial implications.

It follows that money has to be set aside to care for the mentally ill and clinicians and carers have to be trained to deal with their ‘illness’.

In the end, it’s all about the money.

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Category: Environment, Food, Health, Risks and Dangers

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is a full-time wage slave and part-time philosopher, writing and living just outside Omaha with his lovely wife and two feline roommates.

Comments (7)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: You are so right, that in the U.S. it is all about the money. I've been posting about modest ways of making one's life more free of chemicals, e.g., the make your own shampoo post. I know that doing any one of these things in isolation will not create a clean environment. If many of us get together and make our own clean shampoo, soap, dishwasher detergent, ban BPA, get rid of growth hormones in milk and otherwise get rid of dozens of unneeded chemicals, however, we could make a significant reduction in the potentially toxic chemical stew in which our daughters live.

    I've read about (and also know about) some young girls who have started having periods WAY too young. It makes me concerned that their health is endangered. We are certainly in untested ground. This should be much more important that Tiger's affair and Toy Story III, but it just isn't getting traction in the mainstream media. And why would we expect otherwise? Why would we expect that a big newspaper would harpoon a company that advertises in the paper? And why would we expect Congress to take dramatic early steps, in light of your posts and the many other pithy posts to which you've linked?

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Resaerch done in Oregon a few years ago that looked at an increase in the occurance of "gay" rams, which were sexually attracted to other rams instead of ewes, but did not bond with the rams in the same manner as with ewes.

    The research project was heavily critised in the conservative media as an example of government waste in research funding, but is a very important concern in the sheep and wool industries, which rely on animal breeding to replenish the herds.

    One outcome of the research indicated that high levels of estrogen and phyto estrogen from soy based livestock feeds that are used to promote wool production in the females has also been causing prenatal developmental changes in the sheep brains, causing the males to develop a female hypothalmus (I gather from the articles that there is an observable difference between male and female brain structures in sheep).

    This is just the tip of an iceberg.

    The age of maturity directly impacts the emotional and intellectual development as well.

  3. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Niklaus-

    Excellent point, and you reminded me of several other items I forgot to include in the original post.

    The age of maturity directly impacts the emotional and intellectual development as well.

    Absolutely– even if there weren't health repercussions involved with the early onset of puberty (there are), can we really expect a 7 or 8 year old girl to have the maturity to deal with puberty? Can we expect their friends and classmates to be sensitive to these changes?

    Also, the type of developmental changes you discuss with the rams is not an isolated instance. Stories like this one have been popping up more frequently, discussing the mystery of feminization of various species (usually fish or amphibians).

    This could indicate that chemicals in the river are causing the fish to change sex, he said.

    "If these animals are exposed at very early stages, in fact there is evidence it could alter the sex development. The estrogenetic compound in fish could make a male fish develop into a female fish."

    The scientists here are unsure whether to blame this feminization on synthetic estrogens (perhaps leftover from the wastewater treatment process), the chemical BPA (which was ubiquitous in the plastic-making process until the dangers became too great to ignore), or perhaps natural or man-made steroids which had found their way into the river, perhaps due to the prevalence of feedlots in the area (and the tendency to give nearly all animals in feedlots antibiotics and steroids as a preventative measure, rather than therapeutically).

    Far more frightening, scientists are beginning to warn that male humans are at risk also.

    The male gender is in danger, with incalculable consequences for both humans and wildlife, startling scientific research from around the world reveals.

    The research – to be detailed tomorrow in the most comprehensive report yet published – shows that a host of common chemicals is feminising males of every class of vertebrate animals, from fish to mammals, including people.

    Backed by some of the world's leading scientists, who say that it "waves a red flag" for humanity and shows that evolution itself is being disrupted, the report comes out at a particularly sensitive time for ministers. On Wednesday, Britain will lead opposition to proposed new European controls on pesticides, many of which have been found to have "gender-bending" effects.

    It also follows hard on the heels of new American research which shows that baby boys born to women exposed to widespread chemicals in pregnancy are born with smaller penises and feminised genitals.

    Wildlife and people have been exposed to more than 100,000 new chemicals in recent years, and the European Commission has admitted that 99 per cent of them are not adequately regulated. There is not even proper safety information on 85 per cent of them.

    Many have been identified as "endocrine disrupters" – or gender-benders – because they interfere with hormones. These include phthalates, used in food wrapping, cosmetics and baby powders among other applications; flame retardants in furniture and electrical goods; PCBs, a now banned group of substances still widespread in food and the environment; and many pesticides.

    If you don't think it's a big deal that your daughter enters puberty early, will you think it's a big deal when your son begins to grow breasts?

    How about if your infant begins to grow breasts?

    Female infants in China who have been fed formula have been growing breasts.

    According to the official Chinese Daily newspaper, medical tests performed on the babies found levels of estrogens circulating in their bloodstreams that are as high as those found in most adult women. These babies are between four and 15 months old. And the evidence is overwhelming that the milk formula they have been fed is responsible…

    …this isn't the first time something like this has happened. In the 1980s, doctors in Puerto Rico began encountering cases of precocious puberty. There were four-year-old girls with fully developed breasts. There were three-year old girls with pubic hair and vaginal bleeding. There were one-year-old girls who had not yet begun to walk but whose breasts were growing. And it wasn't just the females. Young boys were also affected. Many had to have surgery to deal with breasts that had become grossly swollen.

    Along with China, the U.S. is today one of the few countries in the world that still allows bovine growth hormones to be injected into dairy cows. Though banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe, the use of these hormones in U.S. dairy is not only legal, it's routine in all 50 states.

    The U.S. dairy industry assures us that this is not a problem. But there is a very real problem, and its name is Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). Monsanto's own studies, as well as those of Eli Lilly & Co., have found a 10-fold increase in IGF-1 levels in the milk of cows who have been injected with bovine growth hormone (BGH).

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: You beat me to the issue involving Chinese infants growing breasts.

    Here's another health issue: The number of periods a woman has over her lifetime slightly increases her risk for breast cancer.

    "Women who have had more menstrual cycles because they started menstruating at an early age (before age 12) and/or went through menopause at a later age (after age 55) have a slightly higher risk of breast cancer. This may be related to a higher lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone."

    http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/BreastCancer/Detaile

    If a girl starts having periods in her early childhood, this apparently increases her risk of breast cancer.

  5. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich: First! :P :)

    I wonder if they control for exposure to other estrogens, like the synthetic estrogenic compounds mentioned in my comment above? It would seem to me that if "higher lifetime exposure to the hormones estrogen and progesterone" that cause the increased cancer risk, then it's not the early menstruation, per se, that causes it, but the estrogenic compounds.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Back in 2008, it was reported that most municipal water systems contained trace amounts of prescription drugs. The drugs as well as household chemicals get into the water when outdated medicines are disposed of by flushing them or even leach out from landfills. This implies the concentration increases as you move further downstream in a given watershed.

    Water treatement facilities are not able to remove the drugs from the water, and neither are the waste water treatment facilities.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    Brynn: My point was that if the synthetic compounds in the environment are triggering early puberty, then the average female would have more periods than otherwise (over her lifetime), increasing her risk of breast cancer later in life. In short, I'm suggesting that early puberty (caused by the chemical stew in which our daughters live) might already be a known risk for breast cancer.

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