Are Microwave Ovens Dangerous For Your Health? Find Out Here

You whip out a frozen entrée from your freezer, skim through the simple instructions on the back, and toss it into the microwave. Voila! You have a meal that took only five minutes with one touch of a button. 

However, sometimes the convenience of some kitchen appliances comes at a cost. Pressing concerns crop up regarding the safety of certain aspects of microwave ovens.

This article takes an in-depth look at the dangers surrounding the use of microwaves, which are used in more than 90% of US households.

How does microwave cooking work?

Woman's hand closing a white microwave with food in it

Ever whipped out a mouth-watering bean burrito from your microwave and wondered how it got that way in a fraction of the time it would have taken in a traditional oven?

Microwave radiation that heats your food stems from a vacuum tube magnetron, also known as a cavity magnetron. This amazing small device produces radiation with the application of high voltage. It’s through a small entry point that the waves are channeled into the microwave oven.

Traditional ovens use radiant heat for cooking food. However, only the interior gets heated by the energy radiating in from the surface. Microwaves, on the other hand, heat food by utilizing the unique properties of water molecules.

Taking into consideration that microwaves function at a frequency of 2.4GHz, this implies that the electromagnetic field being discharged by the microwave alters the direction at a rate of 2.4 billion times per second.

The moisture in your food, just like water, has a positive electromagnetic charge on one end of the spectrum and a negative charge on the opposite end. As the field changes, these water molecules remain as aligned with it as possible, which causes friction that produces heat.

Here’s a quick explainer video:

What makes your food heat up unevenly?

The radiation that microwaves produce doesn’t travel far. Thus, they transmit radio waves to your food instead of heating it from underneath, as is the case with traditional ovens. This causes the edges of your food to heat up and leave the center cold (hot and cold spots).

To avoid this predicament, create a hole at the center of your food to form a ring and ensure uniform heating. You can also flatten out your food to create a greater surface area to volume ratio. Or better yet, don’t use a microwave.

Why Is Microwaving Food Dangerous?

Below are some of the reasons why microwaves pose a threat to one’s health.

  • They can leak harmful radiation, which in turn, elevates the risk of cancer and other diseases 
  • They zap the nutrients in your food, which raises your risk of malnutrition-induced illnesses.
  • They result in the release of toxins from plastic containers to your food. 
  • They destroy the beneficial properties found in “live” food. 

Let’s unpack each of these dangers. 

1. Microwaves can leak and release radiation

You might not be aware that radiation leakage from microwaves poses real dangers to your health. To get a better understanding of this concept, you need to know the basics of how microwaves coupled with radiation, work. 

Radiation refers to any type of electromagnetic energy. Nearly everything around us emits radiation to a certain degree. This includes the light bulbs in your home, the ground on which the soles of your feet tread, and the screen in front of you right now.

Some sources of electromagnetic energy are healthy in moderation, for instance, natural vitamin D from sunlight. However, others stemming from smart meters, and Bluetooth headphones can negatively impact your health. 

The classification of the different types of radiation revolves around the frequency, coupled with the size of their wavelengths. Large wavelengths exuding low frequency are usually the safest, for example, those originating from radios. On the opposite side of the spectrum, you have small wavelengths of high frequency that are dangerous. 

  • Ionizing radiation– Its strength gives it the capability of being destructive to the atoms that make up the human body. 
  • Non-ionizing radiation– It’s just enough to rouse the atoms in your body and make them wiggle at a greater frequency. 

Microwaves fall under the category of non-ionizing radiation, which may not be as strong as ionizing radiation. But what you may not realize is that it’s still strong enough to penetrate deep into your body tissue. It’s the same type of radiation that television satellites and cell-phone towers emit. 

This, therefore, begs the question, why are satellites and cell-phone towers incapable of heating things like a microwave oven? To answer this, you’ll need to consider two factors that affect the intensity of radiation. 

  • Proximity– Radiation weakens with increased distance between you and the source, and vice versa. For instance, if you’re hundreds or even thousands of miles away from a nuclear bomb blast, you may be unscathed, based on the size of the bomb. 
  • Power– If the radiation source is strong, as is the case a microwave oven, standing right next to it will have adverse effects on your health. While microwave ovens should have built-in protective radiation shields, over time and if not properly maintained, they can leak EM radiation.

This study looked at 117 microwave ovens and found various levels of radiation leakage. The study confirmed a linear relationship between the amount of radiation leakage and microwave oven age and power.

Health Effects of Leaked EM Radiation from Microwave Ovens

Again, radiation is all around us – from the sun to the Fitbit on your arm. The human body is constantly bombarded with low doses, both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation throughout the day.

The good news is the body can recover from the biological damage that radiation induces. If it didn’t, the human species would have gone extinct millions of years ago. The problem arises when the body gets exposed to high doses of radiation. This can disassemble atoms, which leads to widespread damage to cellular DNA. The side effect of this includes cancer.

Microwave oven leakage in your home can be that high dosage.

This exposure increases the risk of developing certain types of cancers and a myriad of other diseases.

2. Microwaves can zap the nutrients from your food

Healthy salad bowl with quinoa, tomatoes, chicken, avocado, lime and mixed greens, lettuce, parsley on wooden background top view

You may have heard that microwaves annihilate the minerals and vitamins in your food, making it less nutritious. This theory states that radiation from microwaves is destructive, thereby eradicating more nutrients than other cooking methods. While this may seem like hullabaloo, there is truth in these claims. 

Microwaves diminish the nutrient content in food. As a result, this makes a notable difference in your vitality or health.

It’s inevitable that all cooking methods slightly lower the nutritional value of food. Upon heating food, the water content in it evaporates and carries a portion of the nutrients with it. This Tufts University article advocates for quickly steaming vegetables in a metal basket on the stovetop for optimal nutrients.

3. Using plastic containers unleashes toxins into your food

It’s no secret that plastic containers are toxic. They release harmful substances into your food that are hormone disrupters, affecting hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, and can potentially disrupt normal growth and development. 

While this may seem like mere hearsay, there’s truth to this. Plastic containers stem from a multitude of chemicals, some of which make their way into your food, particularly when heated. Does des pose the question, are these chemicals sufficient to negatively impact your health? 

To answer this, you need to know the two major chemicals found in plastics. 

In high concentrations, these two compounds mimic the effects of excess in your body, such as rapid weight gain, birth defects, infertility, and cancer. So, as a result of the dangers that come about as a result of ingesting these harmful compounds, it’s in your best interest to limit as much exposure to them as possible. 

So, does a plastic container for cooking or warming your food in a microwave elevate your exposure to these harmful substances? Yes! 

The number of chemicals that plastic containers emit is sufficient to adversely affect your health. This is the case even after the plastic bottles are run through a dishwasher and boiled. 

I moved to glass, ceramic, and stainless steel years ago and don’t heat up (or store) anything in plastic.

4. Microwaves boost the formation of harmful compounds

Using a microwave increases the formation of toxic compounds in different foods since they become hotter, compared to frying and other cooking methods. Typically, temperatures may exceed 212°F, which is the boiling point of water.

Fatty foods such as bacon and other meats surpass this temperature when cooked in a microwave. This triggers the release of toxic chemical compounds known as nitrosamines. A study unveiled that cooking bacon in a microwave is significantly unhealthy compared to frying it in a pan. This is because it forms more toxic compounds as a result of the excessive heat emitted by a microwave oven. 

5. Microwaves may not destroy bad bugs

Woman's hands putting chicken into a microwave

Most of us depend on microwaves to make our foods safe for consumption. But, they may not always do the trick. This is because microwaves heat food from the outside in, and not vice versa. In turn, this results in the all too familiar cold spots in food which serve as small pockets for food-borne pathogens to shine through. 

Nonetheless, you don’t have to resign yourself to this fate. By switching to a cooker, you can eliminate bad bugs in your food. This also includes following package instructions that call for stirring the food properly during cooking.

Some of us may opt to check the temperature in different spots of the microwave-cooked food using a thermometer to ensure uniformity in heating. But, this isn’t as effective as using a cooker. 

Health and safety precautions

Below are some vital health and safety precautions you can take to help mitigate harmful effects when you can’t get away from using a microwave. 

1. Use as instructed: Typically, you’ll find the directions for use in the manual. It also contains in-depth explanations of safety measures. For instance, refrain from using a microwave when it’s empty. Moreover, water and other liquids should not be heated for longer durations than recommended.

2. Only use microwave-safe containers: Use cookware that’s designed for use in microwaves. Usually, you shouldn’t use aluminum foil or metal pots and pans because microwave ovens reflect off them. In turn, this leads to the malfunctioning of the microwave, coupled with the uneven cooking or heating of your food.

Also, avoid using plastic ware because heated food causes it to melt. Instead, use microwave-safe ceramic and glass. Then use a paper towel, paper plate, or even a ceramic plate to cover the top if you’re concerned about the splashing or popping making a mess in the microwave.

Don’t use plastic utensils in hot food either. They melt quickly, releasing plastic toxins in your food or directly into your mouth.

3. Stay clear of super-heated water: Even brand new microwave ovens carry the risk of inflicting burns. When they heat water in a smooth container, it may exceed temperatures of 212 °F without actually boiling.

When attempting to pick up the cup containing the super-heated water, the slight disturbance results in it boiling at once, causing violent eruptions. This, in turn, may inflict serious burns on your hands or your face.

To avoid this predicament, avoid heating water in a microwave for long durations, more so, distilled water. Furthermore, you can let the water cool down before adding anything to the cup or removing it from the microwave.

4. Examination: As we know, there is a linear relationship between radiation leakage and microwave age. The FDA advises you to keep an eye out for door hinges that are damaged, doors that are warped, or don’t close properly. It’s only upon closely examining your microwave that you’ll be able to spot these issues in a jiffy. If it’s older or starts to become damaged or warped, it might be time to invest in a new microwave.

5. Microwaves that function with their doors open are a no-go zone: At times, a microwave continues operating when its door is open. While this shouldn’t be the case, it implies that its interlock switch has malfunctioned. When this happens, stop using the microwave, as there’s a high likelihood that you’ll end up with 3rd-degree burns and very high levels of EM radiation exposure

6. Implement safe defrosting: When you remove frozen foods such as meats from your freezer, it’s essential to take them out of the store packaging. This includes plastic wrappers and foam trays. Since they’re not heat-resistant, they’ll warp or melt, which leads to harmful compounds making their way into the food.

Instead, transfer the frozen food to a microwave-friendly container and cover it loosely. Select the Defrost feature on your microwave and allow the food to thaw for 10 minutes or more, based on its nature and size.

7. Cook food immediately after the thawing process: As food defrosts in a microwave, you’ll notice its edges start to partially cook whereas the insides remain frozen. During the thawing process, the temperatures of the food can be as high as 140°F during which food-borne pathogens rapidly grow and multiply. Keep in mind that while frozen food contains harmful bacteria, the low temperatures keep them inactive. Therefore, cooking the food immediately after thawing destroys most of the harmful bacteria.

If you decide to cook using a microwave, then use a food thermometer to ensure it uniformly reaches the proper cooking temperature. This keeps food-borne pathogens at bay.

8. Uniform cooking: Arrange the food evenly in a covered microwave-friendly container and add some liquid if necessary. Proper stirring and rotating during the microwaving process aids in getting rid of cold sections in the food where harmful bacteria can flourish. Moreover, if you can, debone large chunks of meat, as bones may prevent the meat from being well-cooked.

9. Unplug when not in use: this is pretty self explanatory but if you unplug the electric device, it’s not emitting RF radiation.

The Take-home message

Microwaves pose a health risk for a number of different reasons. Unless you absolutely have to use one, it’s best to stick with other methods of cooking. But if you must, follow the tips found here and remember to unplug it when it’s not in use (this will help your utility bill too)!

See our full guide on protecting your home from EMFs.

References

Adnan Lahham, Afifeh Sharabati, Radiofrequency radiation leakage from microwave ovensRadiation Protection Dosimetry, Volume 157, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 488–490

Genuis SJ. Fielding a current idea: exploring the public health impact of electromagnetic radiation. Public Health (2007), doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2007.04.008

B.J. Miller, S.M. Billedeau, D.W. Miller. Formation of N-nitrosamines in microwaved versus skillet-fried bacon containing nitrite. Food and Chemical Toxicology. Volume 27, Issue 5, 1989, Pages 295-299