Friday, November 30, 2007

Premature puberty, pesticides, and breast cancer

A special report by PESTed hero Sandra Steingraber was released by The Breast Cancer Fund a few weeks ago, called The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls. Early onset of puberty in girls is a major risk factor for breast cancer, as well as for a host of other emotional and physical health issues related to body image and self-esteem, drug abuse, early sexual activity, and even likelihood of physical abuse. The report is a comprehensive review of the literature on premature puberty with analysis and recommendations that point to some really important themes -
* This is not a normal or natural trend. Average age at puberty for girls fell from the late teens to the early teens over 19th and 20th centuries, mostly due to improvements in nutrition and health care. However, current trends do not follow with the historical trend - average age of onset of menstruation has fallen only by a few months over the past 40 years, while average age of first breast development has fallen by 1 - 2 years. And, both numbers have fallen farther and faster for African American and Hispanic girls than for Caucasian girls.
* This is a racial and socioeconomic issue as much as it is a women's issue. Early-onset puberty is connected to a complicated matrix of other health issues that affect our hormones, including obesity, stress, pre-term birth and birth weight, level of physical activity, and exposure to chemical pollution in the environment. The result is that early-onset puberty and the health and emotional risks it brings are more common for people of color and low-income communities, who suffer disproportionately from all those other health risks.
* A precautionary approach to endocrine-disrupting chemicals - including pesticides - is needed! Compared with girls 40 years ago, girls today are exposed to a host of chemicals in their environment that may affect the functioning of their hormones in childhood and puberty, and that they may pass on to their own children during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Not least among these are pesticides, which contaminate our drinking water and food, and may also contaminate our homes, schools, childcare centers, and workplaces. We simply cannot afford to wait around to find out exactly how and why these chemicals could be hurting us before we take action to reduce or eliminate them from our environment. To do so would not only be imprudent, but unfair to our children, and to the socioeconomic groups that are most heavily affected.
Taking this report together with evidence that boys are also being negatively affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment, I feel all the more concerned, and strengthened in my resolve to work to reduce children's pesticide exposures in my community and my state. Looking at information like this should remind us that environmental responsibility isn't just about the environment - it's about social justice and fighting back against the very real health effects of racism and poverty, and it's about feminism and fighting for the sexual and reproductive health of girls and boys.

Please join me in making more responsible decisions about what you buy for your holiday celebrations, and all year round. For those of you here in North Carolina, here are some important ways to take action to reduce pesticide use at your child's school or childcare center, and to speak out for just and sustainable local agriculture. Also, check out The Breast Cancer Fund's ideas for "What You Can Do Personally and Politically."

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