Love them or hate them, many homes have a microwave. But are they safe to operate or is microwave raditation harmful?
Microwave ovens are home appliances that have shown to be quite versatile over time. Since their coincidental invention in the 1940s, microwaves have become more popular and have found their way onto many countertops in homes and businesses.
Although the amount of radiation given off by a microwave varies from one model to another, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) standard limits the lifetime of the microwave radiation emitted to 5mW (milliWatts), which is well below the harmful value. Much skepticism has followed the safety of using these devices. Having noticed this, let’s dive into microwave ovens and find out if microwave radiation is harmful.
However, it is important to keep in mind that this only pertains to microwaves in good working condition. According to the World Health Organization, microwave leakage could still occur around damaged, dirty or modified microwave ovens.
What are the Risks if Microwaves Leak?
While your microwave may be safe if used properly and in good condition, there are substantial risks if your microwave is in disrepair.
The WHO warns Microwave energy can be absorbed by the body and produce heat in exposed tissues.
This puts organs with a poor blood supply and temperature control, such as the eye, or temperature-sensitive tissue like the testes, at a higher risk of heat damage.
It should be noted, thermal damage would only occur from long exposures to very high power levels, well in excess of those measured around microwave ovens.
How do Microwaves Work?
Before we talk about how a microwave oven heats your food, let’s distinguish two different types of radiation:
- Ionizing radiation and
- Non-ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation, which can eliminate tightly bound electrons from atoms and recharge them, is less dangerous in infinitesimal amounts (like X-rays) but can lead to problems with high exposure (think burns and even DNA damage).
However, microwaves give off non-ionizing radiation; a type of radiation that has enough energy to move atoms in a molecule, but not enough to remove electrons.
What does it mean? Since microwave radiation is non-ionizing, it can only displace molecules in food. In other words, microwave radiation cannot change the food component’s chemical structure.
Specifically, when heating food in the microwave, the radiation generated by the microwave is absorbed by the food’s water molecules. This energy makes the water molecules vibrate and, through this (harmless) friction, generates heat that cooks the food.
This mechanism makes microwaves much faster than other methods of heating food. Its energy instantly reaches molecules about an inch below the food’s outer surface, while heat from other cooking methods gradually enters food by conduction, such as the bottom of a pan when it hits a griddle.
Microwave ovens older than ten years or with defective doors should be immediately replaced to reduce radiation exposure during cooking.
How Much Radiation Do You Get From a Microwave?
As earlier stated, microwave ovens generate non-ionizing radiation. Unlike ionizing radiation, non-ionizing radiation doesn’t have enough energy to eliminate electrons from atoms. Ionizing radiation does this, and it is the type of radiation that causes problems like DNA damage.
In terms of numbers, the amount of radiation emitted by a microwave oven depends on the model and mode of operation. However, microwave ovens are equipped with numerous microwave protection to protect users from burns and other serious injuries.
Acceptable Radiation Levels
It is important to establish safety standards that ensure manufacturers adhere to agreed guidelines for the maximum amount of radiation that microwaves can expose us to.
To monitor this problem, the FDA has developed guidelines on the maximum amount of radiation that a person can be safely exposed to.
According to the FDA, the maximum amount of radiation that a microwave oven can emit during its useful life shouldn’t exceed 5 mW. This number considers the radiation distribution range, as well as the distance to the radiation source, the device itself in this case.
Therefore, this value should not be exceeded at a distance of 2-inches from the radiation source and in an area of 1 sq. cm. This value is much lower than the absolute value that can cause serious harm to a person but is set to minimize the risk to human health.
To calm your mind, microwave energy is drastically attenuated, meaning that the average power just 20 inches from the radiation source may be only 1% of the radiation captured 2-inches from the source.
Values below the maximum stated by the FDA are ideal, but exposure above the stated minimum can be catastrophic for the exposed person.
They may not cause cancer, but you can get away with severe burns. Of course, to better answer your questions and provide reassurance, you should check with the FDA, your manufacturer, or any other state health agency with experts in the field.
Is Microwave Radiation Harmful?
Believe it or not, you are exposed to microwave radiation all the time. Some of them come from space and others can come from terrestrial events like lightning.
In small amounts, the effects of microwave radiation can go unnoticed; however, in large quantities, it can burn tissue.
Some say that the energy emitted by microwaves is enough to damage genetics (DNA) and subsequently cause cancer. But is there any solid evidence to support this theory?
Several studies have been performed on laboratory animals and outside a living organism (in vitro systems), but few have examined living human tissue, making causal relationships difficult.
In 1997, Peter Valberg reviewed all epidemiological studies of the time that examined the distribution and incidence of cancer in relation to microwave exposure and tried to determine whether microwave radiation increased cancer risk in humans.
What Does the Science Say?
He found little evidence of a causal link between this exposure and the disease and, based on what else was known about the mechanism used by microwaves and what has been observed in animal studies, concluded that microwave radiation does not cause cancer.
This makes sense because we know that the non-ionizing radiation used in microwaves is not strong enough to transmit the radiation to food; it can only move the water molecules. Only a few scientific studies have been conducted since Valger’s Review.
However, a study published in Molecular and Cellular Biology found that exposure to microwave radiation in Swiss albino mice showed no evidence of an increased risk of cancer.
Today, Cancer Research UK tells us it is perfectly safe to use microwave ovens. Also, they say it won’t harm you as long as you follow instructions on how to use a microwave.
Microwaves essentially do not make food radioactive. They only heat them! Microwaves have never been proven to harm the foods we cook with them, so you don’t have to worry every time you want to reheat the stockpot or leftover baked beans, so far you follow the instruction manual that came with the microwave.
These include staying away from the microwave while cooking, closing the door properly before pressing “start”, and replacing old broken microwaves that may emit more radiation than we’d like.
How to Avoid Harmful Microwave Radiation?
There’s a simple solution to avoid harmful radiation from your microwave. Don’t stay with your nose in front of the microwave window looking inside for too long. If your face is 2-inches from the window of your microwave while it is in use, your body will receive three times more radiofrequency (RF) radiation than when your cell phone is switched on.
If your face is about 10 cm from the window of your microwave while it is in use, your body will receive the same amount of RF radiation as when the cell phone is on. And if you step away from your microwave while it’s running, your body will receive 0.00000000000000000000002% (that is 19 zeros) as much radiation as if your face were just 2 inches away from the viewing window.
So are microwaves safe and we don’t have to worry about radiation?
Almost. Microwave ovens are remotely safe if properly protected under government regulations. As a safety measure, make sure your microwave oven is properly sealed to prevent additional radiation from escaping when in use.
According to the Canadian Center for Occupational Safety and Health, old or defective door seals are the most popular causes of microwave radiation leaks. Most microwaves are safe to use as long as you don’t rest your nose against the glass to watch them cook. And with proper protection against microwave radiation, you can wear them every day without hesitation.
Does Standing in Front of a Microwave Give you Cancer?
A popular myth about microwave ovens is that they can cause cancer. This may be due to the use of the word “radiation” to describe its operation, as well as the fear that this microwave radiation may escape the microwave.
Here, radiation refers to the energy emitted by a source, not radioactivity. However, microwave ovens do not contain enough energy to change substances chemically through ionization; they are an example of non-ionizing radiation. Other types of electromagnetic (EM) waves, such as X-rays and ultraviolet, have more energy for every photon and therefore can lead to cancer.
Of course, microwaves can cause burns and heat, but all microwave ovens have a metal grill on the appliance door to prevent microwave leakage. These metal racks are large enough to see how your food cooks, but the holes are not large enough to pass the microwaves.
Microwaves also have built-in safety features that prevent the oven from operating when the door is open. So in the end, staying too close to a microwave won’t cause cancer because the rays won’t ionize and you won’t overcook yourself either.
Microwaves are a safe, efficient, and very convenient cooking method. There’s no evidence that they hurt, and some evidence that they are even better than other cooking methods for preserving nutrients and preventing harmful compounds from forming.
However, you should not overheat or underheat the food, you should not stand very close to the microwave, or heat any food in a plastic container unless it is clearly labeled for use.