An estimated ten to fifteen thousand young American children each year are now developing a syndrome known as “precocious puberty.” Girls under the age of eight and boys under nine develop to sexual maturity. The changes often come before the children are psychologically prepared for adolescence and emotional problems often result.
Dr. Felix Conte, A University of California, San Francisco, pediatric endocrinologist, says that “there’s no epidemiological evidence that the problem is on the rise but now that we’re doing research on the subject, I’m seeing a lot more patients with symptoms.”
Ordinarily, “precocious puberty” is rare, occurring in less than one out of 1,000 children. But in recent years outbreaks of this disorder have been reported in the Middle East, Italy, and Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico revealed the most alarming statistics. A three-fold increase of “precocious puberty” reported between 1979 and 1981.
However, the most disturbing aspects about this disorder may not be the symptoms but the causes. Genetics or exposure to sex steroids and synthetic hormones (hormone-laden pills, lotions, and cosmetics) in the environment may be contributing factors to this disorder. However the most prevalent speculation is that the increased level of hormones in our food supply promotes “precocious puberty.”
At present, there are six hormones used to fatten cattle, pigs, and poultry that are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But the FDA has discovered hundreds of ranchers illegally using the carcinogen diethylstilbestrol (DES) which was banned in 1979.
In response to the speculation about the causes of the disorder, Dr. Jose Cordero, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Center for Disease Control, said the high rate could not be definitely linked to hormones in meat but that it is most likely environmental.
In the Middle East, the condition was traced to milk from a cow that had been getting DES injections; in Italy, it was traced to contaminated beef’; and in Puerto Rico, the upsurge was traced to contaminated beef, chicken, and milk.
If the mainstream press were to put “precocious puberty” on the public agenda, it might stimulate official action to prevent the disorder from becoming more widespread.
MOTHER JONES, April, 1983, “Runaway Hormones & Premature Puberty, by Carolyn Marshall.