Breasts at 7 Years Old: How Chemical Hazards May Wreak Havoc on Children's Bodies
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Early onset puberty concerns health and community advocates because it ties into risks in every aspect of a girl's life. Psychologically, premature adolescence may be marked by confusion, depression, unwanted sexual advances and starting to have sex before many of their peers do. Medically, early puberty is associated with various health risks, including obesity and breast cancer -- issues that disproportionately impact black women.
The study published last year, which focused on girls in New York City, Cincinnati and Northern California, showed even more pronounced differences than seen in earlier studies: at age seven, nearly one in four black girls and nearly one in seven Latina girls showed breast growth, compared to only one in ten white girls. A year later at age eight, the rates of black and Latina breast development were 43 percent and 31 percent, respectively, but only 18 percent in whites. Another key set of findings by the research team, published in Environmental Health Perspectives by lead author Dr. Mary Wolff, revealed several small but notable correlations between some endocrine disruptors, particularly common phthalates, phenols and phytoestrogens, and unusual pubertal development.
Other research points to the effects of endocrine disruptors throughout a woman or child's life cycle. In a New York City-based study at the Columbia University's Children's Center for Environmental Health, which tracked pregnant Dominican and African-American women over several weeks, "Phthalates were detected in 85 [to] 100% of air and urine samples."
Sandra Steingraber, author of the Breast Cancer Fund report and a forthcoming book about toxins and environmental health, told On The Issues Magazine that her research on puberty patterns led her to conclude, "It was appropriate to see early puberty as a kind of ecological disorder, meaning that there are many contributing factors, not just any one."
Two types of endocrine disruptors, phthalates and phenols, have attracted public scrutiny in recent years because they are ubiquitous in the environment and scarcely regulated by government.
Bisphenol A (BPA), which is found in the linings of metal cans and plastic products, has been linked in animal studies to early puberty, behavioral abnormalities and altered immune function. One study found that blacks overall had higher urinary concentrations of BPA than whites, as did people with lower incomes.
Phthalates are typically found in soft plastics, including many children's products. Studies have linked the chemical to abnormal sexual development in animals, as well as cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency's data indicate that blacks have especially high exposures to Mono-ethyl phthalate, commonly found in personal care products containing fragrances. A 2003 analysis of government data by the Environmental Justice and Health Union, a coalition of environmental justice groups, found that "the Black population has the greatest overall exposure to phthalates," though certain subgroups within the white population showed extremely high exposures.
The color line keeps resurfacing in studies of the impact of hormone-disrupting chemicals that accumulate in people's bodies, but little is known about what exactly race means here. Is it the segregation of black and white neighborhoods? Fragrances in black hair products? Exposures just from living in the vicinity of factories that make toxic products?
Dr. Frank Biro of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center's Division of Adolescent Medicine, a lead researcher in the 2010 study on race and early puberty, noted that racial categories may be a proxy for complex, overlapping factors. Obesity, or socioeconomic status, for instance, may correlate with race and influence child development, and those factors. in turn, could tie into structural issues like a lack of access to fresh healthy food, or inadequate health care. "[P]art of racial differences includes genetic differences, part of what we call race are cultural issues, part of what we call race are deeply embedded in socioeconomic differences," Biro said. "So in this country, racial differences often evoke strong emotional responses, but race involves a lot of different factors, and we just lump them into race ."