Sunday, August 23, 2015
Last year, Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air released a segment on the age of puberty occurring in girls. Gross interviewed the authors of The New Puberty, Dr. Julianna Deardorff and Dr. Louise Greenspan, who conducted a long-term study on puberty, following 444 girls aged six to eight years old from the San Francisco Bay area. Their study found that, while it was once accepted that age eight was the earliest a girl would begin experiencing puberty, the age for puberty is now decreasing, dipping more and more frequently into the six and seven years-old range. However, just because girls are approaching this turbulent time earlier in life does not mean that they are ready for it emotionally. “It has been established that girls are more likely to have symptoms of anxiety, higher levels of depression, initiate sex and sexual behaviors earlier,” Dr. Deardorff told Fresh Air. Mature bodies paired with immature minds and emotions, it seems, may result in a higher possibility of eating disorders, self-harm, and even early pregnancy.
So, why are these alarming changes occurring in the first place? The short answer is the environment. “What I find concerning is that puberty is a process that’s very sensitive to the environment and we can move the timing of puberty, unintentionally, vis-a-vis environmental exposures” Dr. Deardorff said. There are apparently many environmental factors that can have an impact on when puberty begins, not the least of these factors being the antibiotics fed to animals used to produce meat and dairy products. Antibiotics are given to animals to treat infection and prevent disease, but they also speed up the pubertal development process, acting something like steroids or growth hormones, and causing the livestock to grow larger and mature at an accelerated rate. Farmers generally want their livestock to be bulky and fat, so these drugs are fed to the animals in abundance under the guise of being preventative and safe. The consequences of these antibiotics do not stop with the livestock that directly ingest them. When children consume meat products that have been exposed to these antibiotics, they are being affected by the drugs in the same ways that the cattle are, which results in puberty beginning earlier.
Environmental pollutants also have a huge impact on hormone development, especially chemicals found in plastics, among them Bisphenol A. BPA is a synthetic chemical thought to mimic the naturally-occurring chemical estrogen. Greenspan told Gross on Fresh Air, “There [are] several chemicals that may mimic estrogen in the body… the culprit is called Bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA was actually invented as a medical estrogen, it’s a weak estrogen, and it ended up becoming ubiquitous in plastics… it’s also on paper receipts and in other compounds. The concern is that it may leech out of those and into our bodies and may act like an estrogen.” When estrogen levels reach a certain point in the body, it signals to the body that maturity has been reached and puberty may begin. Leeching of BPA from plastic food containers, toys, bedding, and many other synthetic fibers and products into the body may cause the body to respond to this synthetic form of estrogen at an earlier age, depending on the amount of exposure.
In reality, the extent of the effects of toxic chemical exposures on girls entering puberty is more far-reaching than we can comprehend at this point, especially when considering the myriad of toxins girls are exposed to every day. “Our study has not yet demonstrated that this one single [factor] is causing early puberty… One of the problems with deciding which chemical is that there’s no one smoking gun. We live in a toxic milieu of many, many chemicals and it’s actually becoming impossible to isolate one single [toxin]…” Greenspan said. Despite all this, there are still many ways to be proactive when it comes to limiting girls’ exposures to toxins. Buying plastic products made without BPA is easier than ever before, especially now that the chemical is being phased out of many consumer products. BPA-free labels can now be found on most plastic goods. Taking an even more positive step forward could involve using fewer plastic products in general, opting instead for products that possess a less toxic chemical make-up such as glass, stainless steel, or wood. Purchasing hormone-free and antibiotic-free animal products and organic produce would be optimal for avoiding estrogen mimicker exposure via food, and using natural, fragrance-free household cleaners would also eliminate exposure to dangerous toxins. For those wanting to address these issues at the source, demanding cleaner goods from manufacturers and putting pressure on corporations and governing bodies to regulate toxins can very possibly result in safer food and products for everyone.
Puberty is already a turbulent time for most girls, and it is becoming more and more common for girls to have to navigate these changes at a much younger age. It is not right to ask of seven year olds what, fifty years ago, was being asked of fourteen year olds. This kind of acceleration into adulthood can result in depression, anxiety, and the emergence of premature sexuality. Cleaning up our food and products, decreasing the amount of regular exposure to toxic chemicals, and reestablishing healthier, less-toxic lifestyles can help alleviate this problem for future generations. Because, ultimately, we owe it to our girls to create healthy environments where they can grow up how they need to, when they need to.
National Public Radio. (2014, Dec 2). How Girls Are Developing Earlier In An Age Of 'New Puberty'. Retrieved from npr.org: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/12/02/367811777/how-girls-are-developing-earlier-in-an-age-of-new-puberty