Mary Jo Podgurski

Column Mary Jo Podgurski

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 68 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Dangers from smoking are many

April 23, 2014

Q.Can you help clear something up for me and help me be a good grandparent-to-be? First I’d like to say “Hi” and “Thank you” because I had a baby as a teen a long time ago. You were my doula. The daughter you helped me have is almost 30. I only had her, and she grew up great. I guess we mess up the statistics in a good way. My worry is for her. She’s expecting her first baby, and I’m totally out of my head with excitement. I like her husband. The problem is, he smokes. My daughter doesn’t. I’ve been hearing about secondhand smoke. I read that secondhand smoke is more dangerous than what someone inhales when they actually smoke a cigarette. How can that be? Can you explain that to me and to her?

- A teen mom who grew up

Mary Jo’s response: I’m so pleased you and your daughter are doing well. I’ve never considered any of the young people I serve as statistics. I’m not surprised you’ve made early parenting work. Many teen parents go forward and have exemplary lives.

I’m a grandparent, so I understand your excitement. I think the best blessing in scripture is in Psalm 128 – “May you see your children’s children.” Be excited. There’s nothing quite like grandbabies!

I did some research into secondhand smoke and discovered support for your concern. Secondhand smoke is definitely a health hazard, especially to pregnant women, babies and children.

Over 4,000 chemicals are released when an individual smokes; 250 of those chemicals are toxic. Smoke burning from the end of a cigarette or cigar actually contains more harmful substances than the smoke inhaled by a smoker, since the smoke doesn’t pass through a filter. Toxins from smoking can remain in the air for approximately four hours.

Here are some facts:

• Secondhand smoke (SHS) is also called environmental tobacco smoke (ETS).

• SHS is a mix of two forms of smoke that results from burning tobacco – sidestream smoke and mainstream smoke.

• Sidestream smoke is smoke from the lighted end of a cigarette, pipe or cigar.

• Mainstream smoke is the smoke actually exhaled by a smoker.

• Sidestream smoke has higher concentrations of cancer-causing agents.

• Cancer-causing agents are called carcinogens.

• Sidestream smoke consists of smaller particles than mainstream smoke. These smaller particles can make their way into a person’s lungs and body cells more easily than mainstream smoke.

When nonsmokers are exposed to SHS it is called passive or involuntary smoking. Breathing in SHS exposes nonsmokers to the same toxic chemicals smokers are exposed to.

Three of the many sites where information is easily accessed are the Centers for Disease Control (; the American Cancer Society (; and the Environmental Protection Agency (

The Environmental Protection Agency has classified secondhand smoke as a Group A carcinogen (a substance known to cause cancer in humans). There is no safe level of exposure to Group A carcinogens. Each year, between 150,000 and 300,000 lower respiratory tract infections in infants and children younger than 18 months are due to secondhand smoke exposure.

A 2011 study in the American Journal of Physiology identified another cause for concern, especially during pregnancy: thirdhand smoke. Thirdhand smoke is carcinogen-laden residue of smoking that builds up on surfaces over time.

Cleaning only removes some of the residue. The research found prenatal exposure to thirdhand smoke can have a serious negative impact on an infant’s lung development.

Your son-in-law may be interested in quitting smoking after he reads this information. He doesn’t need to face this challenge alone. Telephone programs help smokers quit and can be accessed via 1-800-QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669). The Pennsylvania Department of Health hosts a Fax to Quit program; our staff is trained to support that effort. We can be reached at 724-222-2311. And information on Washington County smoking-cessation programs is available at

Enjoy your first grandbaby and please keep in touch. Let me know how we can help.



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