I thought that I was in the clear. That I dodged some bullets. I had two healthy pregnancies, during which I tried to do all the right things: I avoided gas stations and mainstream cleaning products. I didn’t color my hair, polish my nails or smoke. Now nine years later, I have two healthy and thriving little girls, and we try to create a healthy home together.
But then two weeks ago, I found myself at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the Breast Cancer Fund. The Breast Cancer Fund fights to get scientists, the medical establishment and policy makers to pay as much attention to the cause of breast cancer as the cure. During the evening, I was reminded once again how vulnerable women are to environmental exposure to chemicals, how our breast tissue is particularly sensitive. And most importantly, how puberty is a crucial window of vulnerability for girls, opening up channels of influence to chemicals much like those months in-utero. Only now our kids are older, a little more out of our grasp and control than when they were babies. Breast Cancer Fund President Jeanne Rizzo's speech shook me to the core. Suddenly, it feels like that bullet is coming right at me again.
My older daughter is on the cusp of puberty at 9 years old, my younger just a few years behind. All of those potent feelings I experienced during my pregnancies and their babyhood came flooding back. The momentary and false sense of control—if only I can buy the right sunscreen/feed them the right foods/clean with the right products, I can avoid unwanted exposures to environmental toxins like mercury, bisphenol A, phthalates, or flame retardants. But now we know that exposure to these chemicals is beyond the control of any of us alone.
We as a society, for reasons complex yet unfolding, are foisting young girls into the turmoil of puberty long before they are developmentally ready. In 2010, researchers at Mount Sinai Medical Center published a report on the effects of chemicals found in products we all have at home, like nail polish, cosmetics, perfume, lotion and shampoo. The results show a direct relationship between use of these products and early puberty development in girls. Studies have also linked early onset puberty to common household items, and foods like dairy and fish.
If only we collectively decided to honor their bodies’ natural trajectories and let them remain little girls for as long as was meant to be. As long as girls have over the course of history. Now, history is apparently a moving target, as implied by the title of a recent New York Times Magazine article on the topic of early puberty: “Puberty Before Age 10: A New ‘Normal’?” An article that unfortunately failed to mention any solutions to the problem of early puberty, like changing the way our country regulates the use of chemicals.
Which brings me to policy change, which is more imperative than ever. We know that changing our personal eating/cleaning/makeup/chemical use habits will only get us so far. As consumers, we should push the personal care, household products, and agricultural industries in the right direction. But at the same time, our legislators need to act to reform the outdated and broken 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act and pass the new, updated Safe Chemicals Act of 2011, which focuses on children’s health as a benchmark for chemical safety. Authored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and co-sponsored by 16 Senators, the Act will increase the safety of chemicals used in consumer products, and protect those most vulnerable to chemical exposure, like women and children.
As for me, enough is enough. I don’t want my daughters dodging the same bullets for their daughters someday.
Lena Brook has advocated for environmental health and justice for over ten years with organizations like Clean Water Action, Health Care Without Harm and Physicians for Social Responsibility. She’s currently a strategic communications consultant with HavenBMedia in San Francisco and can be found blogging about all things related to food at A Happier Meal.