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A mother in Washington noticed something unusual one day, just before her daughter's eighth birthday.

MOTHER: "I noticed around the end of two thousand eight, I think she's getting breasts. This is ridiculous, she’s seven, and I thought I was crazy. So, when we went for our annual check-up, I asked the doctor if I was right. And she said, 'Yeah, she has breast buds.'"

Last year a study in Denmark reported an increase in early breast development. Now a new study in the journal Pediatrics adds to evidence of an increase in early puberty in American girls.

The study took place in three big cities. Dr. Frank Biro at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio led the study. He says it began about seven years ago.

FRANK BIRO: "We followed this group of approximately twelve hundred girls on a regular basis to see when they would enter into puberty."

Dr. Biro says the study found that white girls had the greatest increase in rates of breast development. The rates, he says, were about twice as high for seven- and eight-year-olds compared to earlier studies.

At age seven, the rates were ten percent of whites, twenty-three percent of blacks and fifteen percent of Hispanics.

Dr. Biro says girls with a higher body mass index are more likely to enter puberty early. Body mass index, or BMI, is a measure of weight in relation to height. But the nation's increase in overweight children may be only part of the explanation.

The researchers have been collecting blood and urine samples from the girls for testing. Dr. Biro says the tests are to look for chemicals from the girls' environment that could affect growth.

FRANK BIRO: "That is, chemicals that might mimic natural hormones that our body makes, or somehow interfere with how those hormones act on the body."

He says these chemicals could include growth hormones fed to farm animals, but they could also include chemicals such as phthalates. These are used to makes some kinds of plastics and other products.

FRANK BIRO: "In addition to the types and amount of food we eat, the other important factors are some of these chemicals. For example, personal care factors, such as cosmetics, such as suntan lotions, contain certain chemicals that could impact timing of maturation or other body functions."

But it is too early to know what the tests will show.

FRANK BIRO: "We'll need to wait for all the girls to enter puberty before we have a good grasp on what the contribution is of those environmental chemicals."

He says less research has been done to look for early puberty in boys. But he says some studies have shown that a higher BMI does not speed up development in boys, and may even slow it.

I'm Pat Bodnar.



The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says it is concerned about widespread flooding in Vietnam's Mekong Delta. UNICEF says that bout 750,000 people are affected and the flooding is taking a particularly heavy toll on children.

UNICEF says close to 150,000 households have been affected by the flooding, which is said to be the worst in four decades. It says thousands of families have been evacuated and are living in makeshift shelters along local roadways. It says thousands more still are trapped in their homes.

UNICEF spokeswoman Lynn Geldof says a disproportionate number of Vietnamese children are falling victim to the flood. She says out of 122 deaths, 108 are children.

"The government has opened up more child daycare centers where parents can drop off their children during this flood because if the children are in some safe location, they are less likely to wander," says Lynn Geldorf.

"The children get drowned because their parents have to go off to work or to find food, as basic as that. And, these are young children under the age of four or five. So these daycare centers are one thing that is happening and UNICEF is going to support that carry on."

Ms. Geldof says about 200,000 Vietnamese children have been forced out of school because of the floods. She says there is no indication that the situation is improving. She says water levels are already at their second highest levels in the past 40 years and will remain dangerously high for many weeks to come.

Ms. Geldof says UNICEF is providing three floating medical clinics to reach people in flood ravaged provinces.

"These boats can pull up and dock anywhere and they are manned, apart from the boat crew, by two doctors and two nurses and a pharmacist who give free or low-cost medical assistance," she says. "You know, they do check-ups and they give drugs as required."

Ms. Geldof says many children are suffering from diarrhea and acute respiratory infections. She says the government, with the help of aid agencies such as UNICEF, is coping for now and is not asking for international financial assistance. But, she adds this could change.

Lisa Schlein - Geneva

Composed & Edited by Lê Quốc An
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