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Early Puberty Increasing among U.S. Girls, particularly African Americans

New Breast Cancer Fund report calls for interventions that acknowledge that low-income, overweight, girls of color are most at risk

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, September 6, 2007
Contact: Dan Cohen 510-465-8294, Melissa Daar 510-551-8170

LOS ANGELES—The age at which puberty starts is dropping for all girls, but it is dropping most rapidly for African American girls, according to “The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls: What We Know, What We Need to Know.” The new report, authored by internationally recognized scientist and cancer expert Dr. Sandra Steingraber, has been published by The Breast Cancer Fund.

“This report describes puberty as a delicate process that can be easily disrupted by numerous factors including psychosocial stressors, chemical exposures, and obesity,” said Jeanne Rizzo, R.N., executive director of the Breast Cancer Fund. “To reverse the trend of earlier and earlier puberty—which increases the risk of breast cancer—we need state and national policies that will protect our children from harmful chemical exposures.”
The Breast Cancer Fund commissioned The Falling Age of Puberty to investigate the factors that may be leading to the declining age of puberty in U.S. girls, and to highlight its impact on breast cancer risk. The report reviews more than 200 published studies in a dozen fields, epidemiology, endocrinology, toxicology, evolutionary biology, sociology, child development, nutrition and media studies—and describes the state of the evidence for each of the possible contributing factors as well as the mental and physical health consequences of early puberty. It highlights alarming health trends such as:

• Girls develop breasts, on average, one to two years earlier than did girls 40 years ago. The mean age is about 10 years for white girls and nine for black girls, with 14% attaining breast buds between their eighth and ninth birthdays.

• At age 10, the percentage of African American girls who have begun menstruating is  three times greater than for white girls.

• Early onset of menstruation increases a girl’s risk of getting breast cancer later in life—as much as 50 percent at age 12, compared to age 16.

• Girls who mature early are also more likely to become depressed or anxious, have eating disorders and adjustment disorders, experience more negative feelings about themselves and attempt suicide.

The Falling Age of Puberty reviews possible causes of early puberty such as obesity, television viewing, physical inactivity, psychosocial stressors, low birth weight, formula feeding and chemical exposures. It notes that many of these factors hit poorer communities and communities of color the hardest because poverty, racism, unemployment and exposure to toxic substances are high and access to nourishing food and safe places to exercise is low. “Early puberty is not only a women's issue but it is a class and race issue as well,” said Dr. Sandra Steingraber.

Several causes of early puberty are detailed within the report, such as the girls’ exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. For instance, testosterone creams used by fathers, estrogen creams used by mothers, ointments, hair tonics and ingested pharmaceuticals have all triggered instances of early breast development in girls as young as 18 months. It also cites a number of small studies showing that pesticides, packaging and building materials have also affected girls’ development.

The amount of natural hormones that a child produces is much less than previous research showed. As a result, even a trace amount of a hormonally active chemical in a child’s body can potentially have a huge impact.

The report calls for breast cancer prevention advocates to work closely with colleagues in children’s health, women’s health and environmental health. It notes that new collaborations are needed with specialists working on the nutritional, behavioral and psychosocial contributors to early puberty.  Interventions are also needed that focus on low-income, overweight girls of color who are most at risk.

Ecologist, author, and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer and reproductive health. She was honored with the Rachel Carson Leadership Award in 2001 and was named Ms. Magazine’s “Woman of the Year” in 1997.  She is also the author of four books, including Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, which explores fetal toxicology and genetics. She currently teaches at Ithaca College.

The Breast Cancer Fund report, “The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls: What We Know, What We Need to Know,” will be available September 6 on the Breast Cancer Fund’s website at www.breastcancerfund/puberty.