Are Microwaves Really a Health Hazard?
It's a common urban legend: Stand too close to a microwave, and the body could absorb second-hand radiation and even (ack!) increase the risk of cancer. But is there actually any truth to this one? We decided to find out if the FDA can back up its claim that microwaves are perfectly safe.
Catchin' Some Waves — Why It Matters
Microwaves are a type of electromagnetic wave (shocker, right?), just like UV rays and radio waves. Instead of cooking food with heat like a conventional oven, microwave ovens "excite" atoms (or get 'em all moving around), cooking food evenly throughout rather than from the outside in (like an oven does). The health concerns surrounding this modern cooking method are two-fold: There's the food that comes out of the microwave, and there's also concern over the waves microwaves emit.
Some researchers suggest getting the cells that make up food all hot and bothered from microwaving them causes chemical changes in the food. When the cells are altered, they claim, the body digests them differently, and the abnormal digestion process might increase the risk of developing cancerous cells. However, evidence of this claim in reputable, peer-reviewed journals is hard (read: impossible) to come by, and the USDA maintains that food exposed to this type of radiation does not transfer it to our bodies. Moreover, any amount of radiation created by microwaves is way below the threshold of what could cause damage to humans. In fact, some studies suggest exposing food to electromagnetic rays can actually kill bacteria, making it safer to eat  .
Time to Hang Ten? — The Answer/Debate
But the potential damage to food isn't the only concern over microwaves. Many also worry about standing too close to these radiation-emitting beasts. So let's get one thing straight— microwaves do emit radiation, technically speaking, but it's not the DNA-damaging radiation we're used to hearing about. Microwaves, along with radio waves from (you guessed it) radio and cell phone towers, are types of non-ionizing radiation. Despite significant research, scientists have struggled to prove a definitive link between non-ionizing radiation and cancer— but there have been several studies that show a correlation   . Questionable, we know.
But let's assume for a second that microwaves could cause cancer. Just because they're "nuking" the food doesn't mean microwaves are releasing those same rays into the environment (or into us, the impatient bystanders awaiting steamy ramen noodles). The FDA actually keeps a pretty tight lid on how many waves microwaves can actually emit, and that number is far lower than any amount that could cause actual harm. The FDA does note that upkeep is important, though— damage to hinges or latches could allow more radiation to be released. As long as it's in good working order, the more likely danger posed by a microwave is in the form of burns from over-heated food or even exploding superheated water (yeah, really).
There's no evidence that proves microwaves can release enough radiation to actually do any damage.
- Food irradiation: a safe and useful technology. Parnes, R.B., Lichtenstein, A.H. USDA/Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center at Tufts University, 711 Washington Street, Boston, MA. Nutrition in Clinical Care, 2004 Oct-Dec;7(4):149-55.⤴
- Irradiation in the production, processing and handling of food. Final rule. Food and Drug Administration, HHS. Federal Register, 2008 Aug 22;73(164):49593-603.⤴
- Extremely low-frequency electromagnetic fields exposure and female breast cancer risk: a meta-analysis based on 24,338 cases and 60,628 controls. Chen, C., Ma, X., Zhong, M., et al. Faculty of Preventive Medicine, Department of Occupational Health, Key Laboratory of Electromagnetic Radiation Protection, Third Military Medical University, Chongqing, 400038, China. Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, 2010 Sep;123(2):569-76.⤴
- Residential and occupational exposures to 50-Hz magnetic fields and breast cancer in women: a population-based study. Kliukiene, J., Tynes, T., Andersen, A. The Cancer Registry of Norway, Institute of Population-based Cancer Research, Oslo, Norway. American Journal of Epidemiology, 2004 May 1;159(9):852-61.⤴
- Residential and occupational exposure to 50-Hz magnetic fields and brain tumours in Norway: a population-based study. Klaeboe, L., Blaasaas, K.G., Haldorsen, T., et al. The Cancer Registry of Norway, Institute of Population-Based Cancer Research, Oslo, Norway. International Journal of Cancer, 2005 May 20;115(1):137-41.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
What's your take on this urban legend? Any other myths out there that need busting?
Interesting this is the exact opposite of what another article today stated. http://usahitman.com/microwave-test/
The other article makes sense to me, as whenever I eat microwave food I find it lacks taste, and leaves me still hungry. Both of which are signs of empty calorie foods, suggesting the nutrients have been compromised.
Neither article shows actual evidence-based studies proving their stance. This articlesuggests the evidence doesn't exist for the other articles argument. So I opened up PubMed (One of the largest evidence-based journals online) and found this:
Food-borne radiolytic compounds (2-alkylcyclobutanones)may promote experimental colon carcinogenesis.Raul F, Gosse F, Delincee H, Hartwig A, Marchioni E, Miesch M, Werner D, Burnouf D.Source
Laboratoire d'Oncologie Nutritionnelle, F-67000 Strasbourg, France. email@example.com
I guess the evidence does exist.
Also note the research shown above seems to be focused on the following things:
1)Reduction of pathogens in irradiated food. Heat kills pathogens, this is well known. None of these studies are focused on what irradiation does to the molecular compounds in the actual food itself. Therefore it does not have any bearing on the question asked.
2) Breast cancer and Microwaves. It was found as inconclusive. It does not state it is safe or it is not safe.
3) Brain Cancer and radiowaves. It shows insignificant increases.
None of these studies address radiolytic compounds and their correlation with cancer, particularly colon cancer, as the digestive system is a prime target when discussing food absorption.
Hey Josibean! Thanks for your comments. This article is focused primarily on the effect of radiation that comes from a microwave (rather than the effect of radiation on food), because that's what there's been more research on.
The study you noted from PubMed (you'll notice we only site PubMed studies, too) actually found that rats consuming a high concentration of a radiolytic compound — not consuming it from microwaved food, but just consuming the compound — were somewhat more likely to get cancer when they were also injected with a carcinogen. The study's also older than all the others cited here. So the study you linked to doesn't provide evidence directly relevant to the effects of microwaves on food (or the effects of eating such food, for that matter).
We definitely agree more research is warranted on the subject, and we'll certainly update the article as that comes out. Unfortunately, the other site you linked to is just a science fair project, and we feel we have to defer to the published studies on this one. And those show that microwaves are at best, perfectly safe and awesomely convenient, and at worst, there's no definite evidence that they're harmful.
Thanks again for reading and we really do appreciate the comments!
I would dig a little deeper into this issue. To say the FDA keeps a tight lid on oven emissions is a bit ambiguous. It might be worth noting that the FDA's limits are 5 milliwatts (5,000 microwatts) per square centimeter, yet the FCC has established 610 microwatts per square centimeter as the danger threshold for microwave antennas, which emit the exact same kind of RF radiation. Neither agency considers non-thermal health effects, of which there are numerous. They have simply set "standards" that are impossibly high in order to encourage sales of products and the building of wireless infrastructure.
Instead of trying to answer the question of "are they safe?" try measuring what they actually emit and see how far that radiation travels away from the oven. All you need is a $100 RF meter. I think you'll be shocked.