Eight Going on Eighteen: Our Daughter and Early Puberty

A few years ago, I noticed that my beautiful, vivacious seven-year-old daughter had breasts. Wasn’t this a little young? She was into Harry Potter, rainbow sherbet and puppies — not bras and pads.

In short order I became an expert on puberty. I talked to our pediatrician. I talked to other parents, neighbors and colleagues. I combed the Internet. And what I found out didn’t make me happy.

The causes of early puberty are varied – obesity, premature birth and low birth weight, television viewing, family dysfunction, and formula feeding.

But one contributing factor in particular caught my eye: exposure to everyday chemicals in our environment; specifically, endocrine disrupting chemicals. Endocrine disruptors are a class of chemicals that can mimic or block hormones in our bodies that regulate a variety of systems, including our reproductive health system.

Endocrine disruptors and other harmful chemicals can be found in lots of everyday products – baby bottles, cleaning products, children’s toys, pesticides, and the list goes on. I was particularly distraught to find out that the water bottle my daughter took to school every day contained bisphenol A, an endocrine disrupting chemical that may contribute to early puberty.

My husband tried to reassure me. So she starts to develop a little early, that’s not so bad, is it? At first, I thought he had a point. But as I continued researching, my concerns only grew.

A report commissioned by the Breast Cancer Fund revealed that girls get their first periods today, on average, a few months earlier than they did 40 years ago. More shocking, they get their breasts one to two years earlier. In 30 years, onset of puberty has fallen to just under 10 years for U.S. white girls and just under nine years for black girls.

Early puberty is a known risk factor for breast cancer later in life. It has also been linked to a variety of other conditions, including infertility, irregular periods, eating disorders and depression. Kids that start puberty early are also statistically more likely to engage in high-risk adolescent behavior, like unprotected sex and drug abuse, and achieve lower levels of academic performance.

As a result of my research, I made significant changes in our life. I changed our personal care products, our kitchen utensils, our water bottles, our bedding, our hand soap, shampoos and sun lotions. I got rid of most of our plastic. I learned the names of complex chemicals and acronyms such as BPA, phthalates, dioxin and PBDEs. I took several lists to the store each time I shopped.

I shouldn’t need a degree in chemistry in order to shop for my children. All of the changes we made in our family life are important – but they are not enough. And that makes me mad. So now I am an advocate for chemical policy reform.

Under current law, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), the Environmental Protection Agency has only required testing on approximately 200 of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been on the market since the law passed in 1976. Clearly, TSCA is not keeping our families safe.

In the next few months, a bill to reform TSCA will be introduced in the Senate by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ). Passage of the bill would give us back control of our health and put common sense limits on toxic chemicals. As individuals, we cannot adequately protect our children from toxic chemicals – but together we can.