Girls interrupted

Chemicals are partly to blame for why childhood is getting shorter

Photo By Kat Kerlin

To read Steingraber’s report, visit puberty.

For a clearinghouse of research, news and information about endocrine disruptors, visit, a website offshoot of Theo Colburn’s groundbreaking book of the same name.

A 5-year-old girl with pubic hair. A pregnant 10-year-old. An increase of early labor. Nine-year-olds starting their periods. These are some of the more extreme examples of early puberty that Linda Williams has witnessed as CEO of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte. She’s not alone. There are scores of data from scientists who are researching what appears to be childhood cut short.

Dr. Sandra Steingraber in her report “The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls” writes, “In 1900, average U.S. menarcheal age [age of first menstruation], was 14.2 years.” Now, the mean age is 12.8.

“There is a fairly well-established link between early puberty and an increased risk for breast cancer,” says Williams, a breast cancer survivor herself. She says girls who reach puberty early are also at risk for sexual exploitation. “They’re little girls, but they have the appearance of teens, so they’re treated by the other gender as if they were teens, but they’re not.”

The reasons for early puberty are complex and interrelated. Obesity, racial and social disparities, not having been breastfed, being born too small or too early, and even the absence of a father can contribute to early puberty. But another factor, scientists say, is chemicals in the environment, specifically endocrine disruptors, which can mimic or block natural hormones in the body.

Endocrine disruptors have been the chief suspect in everything from early menstruation to low sperm counts and intersexual fish. They include phthalates and bisphenol-A, which are found in the linings of some food containers, plastic bottles, cosmetics, vinyl shower curtains, and offgassing carpets, cars and mattresses, among others.

After Williams spent three days at a conference listening to scientists present their research about chemicals and reproductive health, she said to them, “When I think of translating this back to the people we serve, the basic message is ‘Don’t breathe the air. Don’t drink the water. Don’t eat the food. Don’t go to work, but whatever you do, don’t go home. Is that right?'”

Her frustration is common. Legislators have been slow to take much regulatory action on endocrine disruptors, and chemicals aren’t tested for endocrine disruption before hitting the marketplace. While there are mountains of data that suggest chemicals’ negative effects on reproductive health, it’s difficult to prove exactly which chemicals, and in what doses and combinations, are the culprits.

Reproductive health advocates are urging lawmakers to use a precautionary principle that says there’s enough evidence to warn people that these chemicals can be unsafe. At the least, chemical ingredients in consumer products should be fully disclosed, writes Steingraber.

In the meantime, while people can’t avoid the chemicals completely, they can reduce their presence. It starts with individuals choosing organic food, nontoxic cleaners, paints and toys, reducing their use of certain plastics—especially those marked #3 (PVC and vinyl), #6 (Styrofoam) and #7 (polycarbonate)—and simple things like not microwaving Tupperware. They can urge schools and other institutions to reduce chemicals, such as with playground equipment and cleaning products. And they can pressure local and national leaders to support more research about the effects of these chemicals on reproductive health and to take action on those findings.