Is Environmental Injustice Morphing Little Girls' Bodies?

The beginning of adolescence is a tough time for any girl. It's
harder when you're growing up in a tough neighborhood and go to a rough
school. And it's really hard when you face all the surging hormones and
other tribulations of puberty before you even reach your eighth

If this sounds unnatural, it's the reality for many young girls of
color who experience early signs of puberty at alarming rates. The
latest research adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting that an
array of social and environmental factors may be causing girls' bodies
to develop prematurely. The
New York Times reports
that the potential causes flagged by
researchers include exposures to chemical contaminants and obesity. The
study-supported by the Breast
Cancer and the Environment Research Centers
-looked at 1,239 girls
screened in Manhattan, Cincinnati and San Francisco. It reveals stark
racial disparities.

The girls who developed breasts early, as young as age seven, were
disproportionately Black and Latina. Black 8-year-olds were more than
twice as likely as white girls to develop breasts. As the NYT reports:

At 7 years, 10.4 percent of white, 23.4 percent of black and
14.9 percent of Hispanic girls had enough breast development to be
considered at the onset of puberty.

At age 8, the figures were 18.3 percent in whites, 42.9 percent
in blacks and 30.9 percent in Hispanics. The percentages for blacks and
whites were even higher than those found by a 1997 study that was one
of the first to suggest that puberty was occurring earlier in girls.

As Susan Shane explained in a 2008 Colorlines essay, early puberty tends to
produce complicated dilemmas. Girls often find themselves physically
maturing at a faster pace than they learn how to deal with sexual
contact, and may face certain cancer risks later in life.

The findings dovetail with earlier research by the Columbia Mailman School of
Public Health
, which has tracked elevated exposures to
environmental toxins in mothers in low-income New York neighborhoods.
The data reflect a disturbing prevalence of chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors, including common plastic
ingredients known as pthalates.

The Obama administration has begun taking environmental health risks
more seriously, beginning with a groundbreaking
report from the Presidential Cancer Panel
which highlighted the
threats of environmental carcinogens.

Meanwhile, the White House is campaigning to reduce childhood obesity, another
health problem tied to early-onset puberty, which may expand poor kids'
access to healthy foods and recreation.

As the budget battle shakes out, it's too early to tell how
comprehensively the administration will address the link between health
and environment. The research is clear, however: the risk to youth
isn't just about "lifestyle," but justice, especially for the young
girls of color who carry an unequal burden as they step suddenly into

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