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The New York Times Magazine's Botched Boob job
Rebecca Goldin, Ph.D., April 16, 2012
Profiting from early puberty: Who is the real victim in the Times story, a child exposed by her mother, or the readers exposed to lots of worry, but no meaningful data by the Times?

plastic bottles“The New York Times Magazine’s “Puberty before Age 10: A New Normal?” is one of those public interest-trend stories that are like a bridge to nowhere. A young girl going through the early stages of puberty – possibly too young, but no one can tell as she’s a sample size of n=1. The victim of the story – whose story of pubescent growth is drawn out in painful (and public) detail, from her first pubic hairs to her budding breasts – does not have any diagnosable problem, except, perhaps, a mother who is intent on denying the normality of puberty beginning at such a young age while, at the same time, profiting off parents’ worse fears: perhaps early puberty is actually due to environmental hazards. The mother, the key source for the article, sells “ ‘natural, organic, craptastic-free products’ containing ‘no estrogens, phytoestrogens, endocrine disrupters.’ What fantastic advertising.

Like all good public interest-trend stories selling alarmism, this one has its emotional appeal: a young child and her body with its own mind. The article is chock full of doctors explaining the process of puberty, and the controversy over whether puberty is actually happening earlier in girls. It cites a doctor who notes that girls who are overweight or obese are much more likely to have their periods early (how much more likely, or how much earlier, is not explained). It cites a doctor who believes the cause is stress, or maybe sugar.

And then there is the other concern: the environment. Let’s set the dark tone: A natural disaster in 1973 exposed many pregnant women to an estrogen-mimicking chemical PBB through contaminated meat and milk. Their daughters got their period earlier than other girls. Then finally, the chemical punch line,

“One concern, among parents and researchers, is the effect of simultaneous exposures to many estrogen-mimics, including the compound BPA, which is ubiquitous. Ninety-three percent of Americans have traces of BPA in their bodies. BPA was first made in 1891 and used as a synthetic estrogen in the 1930s. In the 1950s commercial manufacturers started putting BPA in hard plastics. Since then BPA has been found in many common products, including dental sealants and cash-register receipts. More than a million pounds of the substance are released into the environment each year.”

Unlike the rest of The New York Times article, no individual research was cited, and no individual doctor went on record. Here the researchers’ concerns are anonymous, vague, and alarming. In fact, the author cited no research article or mention of studies linking breast development or menarche to exposure levels of BPA. The fact that ninety threepercent of folks have detectable BPA levels has effectively been translated by the Times into “your body is infected!” With a million pounds released each year, we are left to our own imagination as to what this means. We have no context, but it sure sounds like a lot. Without citing a shred of evidence, The New York Times has managed to implicate BPA in the early onset of puberty. Did not one editor think of asking the writer to contact the CDC or FDA for an evidence-based perspective?

No need for us to write here about that research. Readers worried about the early onset of puberty for girls have already indicted it; those who may be open-minded but worried walk away from the Times’ article with absolutely no useful information about any aspect of the issue, except the worry itself. Oh - and a sales pitch for a line of “craptastic-free” products. Caveat emptor.

Rebecca Goldin is the Director of Research of STATS at George Mason University.


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