Monday, August 16, 2010

Marking Time

There’s nothing like research to stretch things out. I am a big fan of making fact based decisions, but it seems like right now we are faced with so many significant changes at once that the scientific method is failing to keep up.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati Medical School published findings last week in the on line Journal of Pediatrics that confirmed that girls are now developing breasts and hitting puberty as young as age seven. While confirming something that many of us had suspected for a long time after watching our own kids, their friends, nieces and classmates, the study could not present any conclusive explanation of what could be causing this shift.

The study compared 1200 girls age six to eight in New York, Ohio, and California. It compared the age when the girls showed early signs of puberty against the results of a similar study from 13 years ago. At 8 years old 18.3% of white girls showed signs of developing breasts, 43% black, and 37% Latina. In all categories the ages of the girls were statistically significantly younger than they were just 13 years ago. No explanation of the divergence among the races was offered.

The researchers posed two areas for further research. The first is that the data showed a statistically significant correlation between obesity and early puberty. In the study, the girls who reached puberty at a young age were also more likely to be obese. The disturbing thing about this is that these young girls will be at a higher risk of many health problems for the rest of their lives due to their early obesity. Unfortunately, however, correlation doesn’t prove causality. Is it the obesity that causes the early puberty or is there something out there that is a precursor to one or both?

The second was environmental toxins. Over 100 chemicals were found in the girls. The study author, Dr. Frank Biro of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, postulates that pollutants that mimic the female hormone estrogen might also be contributing to early puberty. “Whether {they be in} food that they’ve eaten, or products that are used for personal care products, as well as products that could be used at their homes”. Note that the Dr. didn’t call out something like proximity to a nuclear waste site or early exposure to radiation; he called out things that we all have in our lives every day. Could it be that the food we eat and the personal care products we use are causing early puberty?

What pollutants mimic estrogen? Carbon chorines used in pesticides, phthalates used in the plastics industry to soften pvc, dioxin that is a byproduct of paper processing, and herbicides. These are all chemicals that can interact with the same receptor molecules inside the body that estrogen can. The theory is that we may be overdosing living things with excesses of hormone-like signals. Pesticides and herbicides are certainly used in food production in the US, and we use them on our lawns and in our homes. Our food comes wrapped in plastic, we use bleached white paper products. The potential list of everyday contaminants goes on.

So what are we to do? I heard a doctor interviewed on a cable news channel after the release of the Presidents report of the state of our health that discussed the mounting evidence that organophosphates were associated with ADD in kids. Imagine thinking your were doing the right thing getting your kids to eat more vegetables, only to find out that the veggies you gave them were making them sick. This doctor advised people to “eat local food, not something from Mexico”. What is it about local that means it hasn’t been exposed to chemicals? We use more chemicals in food production in the US than Mexico does. Where I live in the Midwest, our local farm production is some of the most chemical intensive in the world.

As un-cool as it sounds, eating organic food is still important. Local and organic is the best, but it’s dangerous to confuse local with chemical free. In the world of Venn diagrams, they are two different circles that overlap but they are not identical. I also think its interesting that the study authors didn’t attempt to explain the significantly higher rates of early puberty among African American and Latina girls. It may not be an accident that these demographic groups are more likely to be poor, eat a less healthy diet, be obese, and live in cities, than white children.

Conclusive research moves slowly at best, and may never happen because of the difficulties inherent in conducting scientific research on this kind of long-term effect of multiple factors. In the meantime, maybe a bit of common sense would work better? Something is going on that is making animals lower in the food chain multi sexual, sterile [frogs for ex.]; something is here that’s driving down male sperm counts globally; something is making young girls pubescent when they used to be playing with dolls. Maybe we don’t have time for definitive research? Maybe we get to work on getting chemicals out of our food now, not decades from now when the research is more definitive.


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