THE DETAILS: In this portion of an ongoing study, researchers looked at the medical histories of nearly 1,250 girls, ages 6 to 8, living in different parts of the country, including East Harlem, New York; Cincinnati; and the San Francisco Bay area in California. They found that on average, girls have started going through puberty significantly earlier than just a decade or two ago. For instance, about 10 percent of the girls in the study started going through puberty at age 7, and 27 percent start by age 8, according to Pinney. The latest study's findings are alarming, given that a highly publicized study from 1992 to 1993 found the average age of first breast development was 10 years old.
Previous research has linked early puberty to lower self-esteem, an increased risk of engaging in risky behavior, and a higher risk of breast cancer and metabolic syndrome in adulthood.
WHAT IT MEANS: Researchers haven't identified the smoking-gun source of the early puberty epidemic, but they have lots of ideas, mainly ones that center on childhood obesity (in which excess estrogen could be manufactured in fat cells) and exposure to estrogen-mimicking chemicals, including BPA, found in the lining of many canned foods, on receipts, in some No. 7 plastics, and even in water and sand. Coauthor of the study, Susan Pinney, PhD, associate professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, says phthalates, plasticizing chemicals used to create vinyl, and used in many synthetically scented products and lotions, also disrupt hormones and boost estrogenlike qualities and are of concern.
Here's how your family can avoid chemicals and other factors that may be promoting early puberty:
• Eat organic and exercise. Pesticides are major hormone disruptors whose inert ingredients can actually carry the toxins inside the food. Eat organic and avoid processed foods whenever possible to greatly reduce your body's pesticide load. Another benefit? Certified-organic foods cannot be grown using antibiotics or hormones.
On the exercise end, to prevent the unhealthy effects of obesity, use the strategies that help working parents keep their kids healthy, including getting them to bed on time, limiting their screen time (including TV, video game, and non-school-related computer use), and demanding healthier food at school. "The most important thing is to pay attention to children's diet, amount of food they consume, and their exercise habits, says Pinney. "Diet is probably the most important thing." Work with your child's school to make sure the kids get healthy lunches.
• Phase out plastic chemicals. Here are a few easy swaps that will help reduce your exposure to harmful plastic chemicals:
Opt for fresh or frozen food instead of canned.
Avoid fake leather furniture and clothing and vinyl flooring.
Choose unscented, plant-based laundry detergents and soaps.
Use food-grade stainless steel water bottles (like Klean Kanteen) instead of plastic ones. NEVER heat food in any type of plastic food or beverage container; it accelerates leaching of chemicals into the food. That includes microwavable meals that are packaged in plastic.
• Conquer household dust. While you may joke about dust bunnies lurking in corners of your house, they actually could harbor some dangerous toxins from household products, including hormone-disrupting flame retardants. When it's cleaning time, wet-mop hard surfaces, and use a vacuum with a HEPA filter on carpets.
• Trash triclosan. A study published earlier this year in Environmental Health Perspectives found an association between the manmade antimicrobial triclosan and early puberty. Triclosan is commonly used in soaps and many other products marketed as "antimicrobial," or "odor-free," and in Microban products. Studies have shown triclosan doesn't do a better job at killing germs than regular soap and water, and it's actually credited—in part—with increasing the instances of MRSA and other antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains.
• Decorate smarter. To prevent brining even more flame retardants into the home, the next time you shop for furniture, look for pieces without tags that say "complies with California Technical Bulletin 117," a law that requires furniture to be flame retardant. Since synthetic carpeting often also contains flame retardants, it's best to go with natural fibers or opt for healthier alternatives like Forest Stewardship Certified (FSC) hardwood or cork. (By the way, tests show that those fire-retarding chemicals only slow fires by a few seconds.) When it comes to cleaning products, make your own nontoxic cleaners instead of using harsh store-bought versions.
• Forgo fragrances. Adolescent girls love to slather on scented lotions and body sprays, but these chemically scented toiletries, in addition to many soaps and shampoos, are often laced with phthalates. To find healthier personal-care products for your entire family, check out Environmental Working Group's Cosmetic Safety Database.