Little girls developing puberty and starting their menstrual periods as early as 8 years old is becoming a major problem in the Western world?and nobody knows why it?s happening. It?s occurring at a time when teenage motherhood is a major problem and people are living longer than ever, so no one wants to see female childhoods cut short.

It has now been discovered that some hair products, especially those marketed to black people, contain small amounts of hormones that could cause premature sexual development in girls.

The evidence that hair products containing estrogens cause premature puberty is circumstantial, and the case is still unproven. But Ella Toombs, acting director for the Office of Cosmetics and Colors at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, warns, ?No amount [of estrogen] is considered safe and can be included in an over-the-counter product.?

Under FDA regulations, over-the-counter products containing hormones are listed as drugs and require a prescription. However, there appears to be a gray area concerning products that were first marketed before 1994. At least five companies are still making hormone-containing hair products.

Throughout the West, girls are reaching puberty earlier. This has been blamed on everything from improved diet to environmental contaminants. But African-American girls are developing even earlier than white girls. About half of black girls in the U.S. begin developing breasts or pubic hair by age eight, compared with just 15 per cent of white girls, one study has found. In Africa, girls enter puberty much later, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

This discrepancy may be explained, at least in part, by the frequent use of hormone-containing hair products among African Americans, says Chandra Tiwary, former chief of pediatric endocrinology at Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas. ?I believe that the frequency of sexual precocity can be reduced simply if children do not use those hair products,? he says.

These products are sold as shampoos or treatments to deep-condition dry, brittle hair. The labels usually state that they contain placenta, hormones or estrogen, although not all products that make such claims contain active hormones. Most of these products are no longer sold in Europe, although many are still available worldwide over the internet.

But they remain popular in the U.S. among African Americans. A small study published earlier this year by Su-Ting Li of the Child Health Institute in Seattle suggests that nearly half of African-American parents use such products, and that most also use them on their children. For other ethnic groups the figure is under 10 per cent. Tiwary says he has carried out a bigger, as yet unpublished, survey of 2,000 households that confirms these findings.

In 1998 Tiwary, published a study of four girls?including a 14-month-old?who developed breasts or pubic hair months after beginning to use such products. The symptoms started to disappear when they stopped using them. The year before, he published a study showing that some of the products used by his patients contained up to four milligrams of estriol per 100 grams. Others contained up to two grams of estradiol per 100 grams.

B&B Super Gro, for example, which was marketed before 1994 and is still on sale in the U.S., claims to be ?rich in hormones.? It was found to contain 1.6 grams of oestriol per 100 grams. While the levels of estriol in the products were much higher, estradiol is a far more potent form of estrogen.

Scientists know that estrogen is readily absorbed through the skin, since hormone therapy is often delivered with skin patches. Long-term exposure to these high doses could cause premature puberty, Tiwary believes.

His studies are not the only ones that reveal this link. Anecdotal reports in scientific papers going back to 1982 describe early puberty in children after use of hair treatments, as well as certain ointments. Tiwary notified the FDA of his concerns in 1994, but says he?s never received a reply.

Julia Brody, director of the Silent Spring Institute in Massachusetts, says, ?A person isn?t exposed to just one chemical, but rather a mix of many. There is an increasing awareness that hormonally active compounds are present in cosmetic products.?

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Public swimming pools contain high levels of chloroform, a chemical linked to miscarriages, say researchers in the U.K. Chloroform is formed in water when the disinfectant chlorine reacts with organic compounds.

A team led by Mark Nieuwenhuijsen at Imperial College in London found that the chloroform content of water in eight pools in the city was on average 20 times higher than that of drinking water.

Some U.S. studies have suggested a correlation between the number of glasses of chlorinated tap water drunk daily by pregnant women and their risk of miscarriage. The presence of chloroform and other trihalomethanes (THMs) in the water has been blamed for this. ?The studies linking chlorination and miscarriage are inconsistent and inconclusive and much more research is needed,? says Nieuwenhuijsen. ?But pregnant women are often advised to go swimming?and there is a much higher level of chloroform in pools than in drinking water, so it could be a bigger pathway for exposure.? He believes that chloroform levels in pools should be reduced as a precaution.

In pools, chlorine reacts with skin scales, some skin creams and other organic materials to form THMs. Swimmers are exposed to these chemicals through their skin, by swallowing water, and by breathing it off the surface as it evaporates. The higher the number of people in the pool and the warmer the water, the higher the concentration of THMs.

Nieuwenhuijsen says, ?Chlorine is very effective as a disinfectant. We need a balance between effective disinfection and lower THMs. Better showering of people before they go into the pool and better filtering might help reduce organic matter?and so THMs.?

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?Bras cause breast cancer. It?s open and shut,? says medical researcher Syd Singer. Soma and Syd Singer began investigating breast cancer in 1991 after Soma discovered a lump in her breast. Syd wondered if bras could constrict breast tissue, hampering lymph drainage and causing degeneration.

When he searched the medical literature, he found no known causes of breast cancer, which rarely appears before a woman’s mid-thirties, and most often occurs after 40. The highest death rates from breast cancer are in North America and northern Europe, but the developing world is catching up fast.

The World Health Organization thinks chemical toxins are the primary cause of cancer. Poisons accumulating in breast tissue are normally flushed by clear lymph fluid into the large clusters of lymph nodes in the armpits and upper chest. The Singers believe that ?because lymphatic vessels are very thin, they are extremely sensitive to pressure and are easily compressed.? Chronic pressure on the breasts can cause lymph valves and vessels to close.

?Less oxygen and fewer nutrients are delivered to the cells, while waste products are not flushed away,? the Singers say. 15 or 20 years of bra-constricted lymph drainage can result in cancer.

Soma and Syd were struck by the low incidence of breast cancer in poorer nations, even though some of these countries are awash in pesticides. They discovered that the Maoris of New Zealand, who have integrated into white culture, have the same rate of breast cancer, while Australia?s aborigines have virtually no breast cancer. The same trend is true for Westernized Japanese, Fijians and other bra-wearing cultures.

The researchers observed that just before a woman begins her period, estrogen floods her system, causing her breasts to swell. If she continues wearing the same bra size, her lymph nodes will be even more tightly compressed. Also, childless women or women who never breast feed never fully develop their breast-cleansing lymphatic system.

Could bras be the ?missing link? in the growing epidemic of breast cancer? Beginning in May, 1991, Soma and Syd Singer?s 30-month ?Bra and Breast Cancer? study interviewed 4,000 women in five major U.S. cities. All were Caucasian in the medium income ranging in age from 30 to 79. Half had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Almost all of the women interviewed were unhappy with the size or shape of their breasts. Women who chose a bra for appearance and ignored breast soreness and swelling had twice the rate of breast cancer of those who wore a bra that fit well.

The most startling statistic was that three out of four women who wore their daytime bras to sleep contracted breast cancer. So did one out seven women who wore a bra more than 12 hours a day. ?Don?t sleep in your bra!? says Syd. ?Women who want to avoid breast cancer should wear a bra for the shortest period of time possible?certainly for less than 12 hours daily.?

The Singers sent their survey results to the heads of America?s most prestigious cancer organizations and institutes. None responded.

Soma began going bra-less and also began regular breast massage and bicycle riding, vitamin and herbal supplements, and drinking only purified water. Two months later, her lump disappeared.

Syd Singer says, ?Women should take their bras off before they take their breasts off.?

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