Is Environmental Injustice Morphing Little Girls’ Bodies?

The latest research suggests an array of social and environmental factors may be causing girls bodies to develop prematurely, especially girls of color.

By Michelle Chen Aug 10, 2010

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 birthday.

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 adulthood.