Growing numbers of girls in Britain and other parts of Europe are reaching puberty before the age of 10, raising fears of increased sexual activity among a new generation of children, The London Sunday Times reported.

Scientists believe the phenomenon could be linked to obesity or exposure to chemicals in the food chain, and is putting girls at greater long-term risk of breast cancer.

A study revealed that breast development in a sample of 1,000 girls started at an average age of nine years and 10 months — an entire year earlier than when a similar cohort was examined in 1991.

The research was carried out in Denmark in 2006, the latest year for which figures were available, but experts believe the trend applies to Britain and other parts of Europe. Data from America also point to the earlier onset of puberty.

“We were very surprised that there had been such a change in a period of just 15 years,” said Anders Juul, head of the Department of Growth and Reproduction at the University hospital in Copenhagen, a world leader in the study of hormones and growth.

“If girls mature early, they run into teenage problems at an early age and they’re more prone to diseases later on. We should be worried about this regardless of what we think the underlying reasons might be. It’s a clear sign that something is affecting our children, whether it’s junk food, environmental chemicals or lack of physical activity.”

A study published in the journal Public Health Nutrition last Friday showed a link between high meat consumption and earlier puberty in girls.

Researchers at U.K.'s Brighton University found that 49 percent of girls who ate meat 12 times a week at the age of seven reached puberty by the age of 12, compared with 35 percent of those who ate meat four times a week or less.

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