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Recently, I read an alarming statistic that describes the onset of puberty as beginning to occur at an earlier and earlier age for American girls, with many girls as young as 7 and 8.

New research shows that 10.4 percent of white girls, 23.4 percent of African-American girls and almost 15 percent of Latino girls (according to the journal Pediatrics) have displayed signs of early-onset puberty.

Early onset of puberty begs the question: Who or what is stealing the childhood of this age group of girls?

I researched the probable causes and discovered studies that attribute early-onset puberty to the hormones that are used in cattle feed. The study suggests that the hormones in beef could be causing an acceleration of puberty in America's children. (For evidence see the 2010 study in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition.)

Further, the use of the so-called stealth estrogens is why the European Union has banned the import of most North American beef, which is hormone treated. The ban has been a major depute under consideration at the World Trade Organization.

Another hidden but insidious cause of early onset of puberty is the presence of many environmental toxins, which act as hormone-disruptors.

In his 1997 book, "Our Stolen Future," Dr. John Myers of the United Nations highlighted the toxic effects of some of the estimated 70,000 chemicals in commercial use. Myers believes that some shampoos, for example, contain almost the same amount of hormone, as do low-dose estrogens patches, which are used for hormone-replacement therapy in postmenopausal women.

A 2005 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics describes that the age of onset of puberty for girls is controlled by the value of fat stores in the body. Enough fat in the body signals to the brain that there would likely be enough food and nourishment available if reproduction were to happen.

In other words, improved access to food and nutrition has caused this change, particularly over the past 20 years. The availability of food is a Catch-22. Girls may have access to more food, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the food is nutritious or that the availability of food is leading to a secondary problem of obesity, which is also a cause of earlier puberty.

The problem of early onset of puberty affects children's social development as well. In other words, early onset of puberty for girls goes beyond the physical. They may look more mature, but they still have the emotions of young children.

For boys, with the exception of stealth hormones used in beef and environmental toxins, the connections between fat storage in the body and early onset of puberty is reversed when compared to girls. That is, studies have shown that fat storage of obesity in boys actually delays the onset of puberty, which can affect boys in other ways, particularly with self-esteem and body image.

Is the magic of full childhood gone? Statistics do not lie. Early onset of puberty is not only stealing childhood but may be also leading to other repercussions in later years of development.

Will there be other health issues that they must face? Is anyone listening?

David Sortino, a Graton resident, is a psychologist and retired teacher. Email him at davidsortino@comcast.net or contact him through his blog, "Awakening every child's genius," on pressdemocrat.com.