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Wednesday, 16 May, 2001, 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK
Premature puberty link to DDT
Children at school in India
DDT is still used in countries like India
Scientists believe the controversial pesticide DDT is responsible for premature puberty in girls in developing countries.

Researchers in Belgium, who carried out the study, found children who had emigrated from countries such as India and Colombia were 80 times more likely to start puberty unusually young.

Three-quarters of these immigrant children with "precocious" puberty had high levels of a chemical derivative of DDT in their blood.

This chemical, DDE, mimics the effects of the oestrogen hormone, which plays an important role in controlling sexual development.

The girls in the Belgian study began developing breasts before the age of eight, and started their periods before they were 10.

The team, led by Jean -Pierre Bourguignon from the University of Liege, discovered that children emigrating to other European countries also had an increased tendency to begin puberty early.

They did not believe this could be entirely attributed to a better diet.

The team tested the children for a range of pesticides and found that 21 out of 26 immigrant children with precocious puberty had high levels of DDE in their blood.

The chemical was only detectable in two out of 15 native-born Belgian children.

Their findings may not be entirely conclusive because they did not test immigrant children who had not started puberty early for pesticides.

Carcinogenic effects

David Buffin from the Pesticide Action Network said: "We have known for a while, the chronic problems associated with DDT.

"And we have been concerned about its chronic effects in terms of cancer and its effect on reproduction.

"It's a known carcinogen and is suspected to disrupt the endocrine system."

Friends of the Earth (FoE) is equally worried that DDT used in foreign countries is entering the food chain closer to home with the increase in imported food.

FoE's food campaigner Sandra Bell said: "This certainly seems to add to the weight of growing evidence that hormone disrupting pesticides could be having a very serious long term effect on our health and adds to our demand that we should be banning all hormone disrupting pesticides which are turning up in our food."

DDT has been banned in the European Union (EU) and US for decades, but is still used in many developing countries, mainly to control malaria.

Speaking about the Belgian survey, Stuart Milligan, endocrinologist at King's College London, said: "The results certainly suggest an environmental factor.

DDT container
DDT is found in imported food

"What's dangerous is to create a scare story from something that's not proven."

But this is not the first time the effects of DDT on female hormones has come to light.

A three year study in the US, 20 years ago, found that the children of pregnant mothers whose blood and breast milk contained high levels of DDT, reached sexual maturity earlier.

Scientists monitored the physical growth and maturity of 600 offspring from these women and discovered girls with the highest pre-natal exposures to DDT and another hormone altering chemicals entered puberty 11 months earlier than girls with lower exposure.

For boys, exposures to the chemicals before birth made no apparent difference in sexual development.

Bourguinon and his team now plan to check whether immigrant children who go into early puberty have higher levels of pesticide than those who do not.

Their findings appear in New Scientist magazine.

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