The following article is from Mothering Magazine

Sexual development is beginning earlier and earlier in American girls, carrying many concerns and issues along with it such as an increased risk of breast cancer later in life and well-developed bodies in young girls that are not emotionally ready. A landmark 1997 study of 17,000 girls startled parents with its findings that nearly 7 percent of white girls and 27 percent of black girls start developing breasts by age 7 - during second grade.

The study also found the average age was younger than parents probably expected. White girls now start breast development at an average age of 10 years and black girls at 8.9 years. (While some researchers hypothesize boys also might be going through puberty earlier, research has only begun.)

Why is it happening? There are no sure answers. A link between obesity and early puberty exists but the 40 doctors and scientisits who met in Chicago last month to discuss it think there's something else pushing puberty into high gear. Chemicals. Chemicals that mimic honmones and are found in pesticides, cosmetics, food containers and water bottles, among many other items children use daily.

The chemicals are known as endocrine disrupters because they are believed to disrupt hormones and glands that control the reproductive system. It is believed and hoped that if parents can minimize exposure early puberty can be delayed and the risk of cancer reduced.

However, it starts way before cosmetics and water bottles even before plastic teethers and toys. A mother's exposure is carried over to her baby in her womb. And from birth onward chemicals are difficult. Two of the oft-cited culprits, bisphenol-A and phthalates (pronounced thalates), are in common use.

"We have widespread exposure to bisphenol-A. It's in practically everything. It's been found in blood throughout the Northern hemisphere," said Theo Colborn, author of a book on endocrine disrupters titled "Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Own Fertility, Intelligence and Survival? A Scientific Detective Story."

Phthalates are added to plastics to make them more flexible. Bisphenol-A is found in the liner of almost every can of food.

Plastics makers, who've conducted their own research, disagree. A weak estrogen-like effect was noticed in the lab, but not when living animals were exposed to the chemicals, said Marian Stanley of the Phthalate Esters Panel of the American Chemistry Council, an industry group.

Duke University Medical Center pediatric endocrinologist Dr. Michael Freemark seems to disagree as well, says the findings may be misleading.

"The presence of isolated breast development or pubic hair does not necessarily indicate the emergence of true puberty, leading to sexual maturation."

Sexual maturation, he says, comes with the start of the first menstrual cycle, not with the appearance of pubic hair and breasts. Freemark also points out that there is no previous systematic study with which to compare these numbers. And he says there is still the question of why boys don't show similar results.

"We don't know whether there's an increasing sensitivity in girls relative to boys. We can't really explain the difference at this time."

Is it possible that endocrine disrupters contribute to such a change? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says "compelling evidence" shows endocrine disrupters have impaired the reproductive systems of fish and wildlife. That includes changes to puberty.

But that's in animal studies you say.

Marcia Herman-Giddens, a public health professor at the University of North Carolina, cites a Michigan case in which girls and women were affected when an endocrine disrupter chemical accidentally got into cattle feed.

A study of pregnant women who ate the beef from those cattle, then gave birth to baby girls, found that, years later, the girls started menstruating a full year earlier than girls in a control group.

She also cites a study of girls in Puerto Rico who were developing breasts at very young ages. Elevated levels of phthalates were found in their blood, she says.

It seems caution is in order and avoiding certain things wherever possible a wise "preventative medicine" step.

So, what should be avoided? Colborn believes the risk from plastics is greater than the risk from hormones in meat, milk and eggs that come from growth stimulators given to animals. Still, she advises buying hormone-free foods.

Regardless what conclusion science comes to in this matter we should protect our children and ourselves from chemicals in plastics, fragrances, cosmetics and air fresheners as much as possible. We should also feed our families healthy, homemade foods using the freshest and most chemical free products we can obtain and afford. It's all a part of natural family living.