Karen Wiggins on January 6, 2017 1 Comment Are microwave ovens bad for your health? It depends on who you ask. Though some advocates of clean, simple and organic living may accuse this kitchen staple of doing everything from emitting too much dangerous electromagnetic radiation in our homes to ruining all of our food, other experts, including the FDA, have repeatedly concluded that modern microwaves are some of the safest appliances around. The agency, by the way, has been monitoring and certifying these devices since the early 1970s. Shop for Microwaves Here For the most part, this style of oven is probably safer than a conventional oven in terms of potential risk for fire or burns — all the heating is done through electromagnetic activity, not gas, wood or electricity, and temperatures can spike but can quickly go back down. Food is generally cooked faster as well, making it one of the better and safer domestic time-saving appliances to come out of the 20th century. In fact, one of the few downsides to microwave ovens that some point out seems to be the quality of prepared food — some culinary experts believe that the cooking process can either not thoroughly cook your item, or at least strip out some of the vital nutrients. However, other nutrition experts point out that vegetables heated in microwave with reduced nutrients are still better than no vegetables at all. And some studies point out that actually very little nutrition is lost beyond what can be lost in other conventional cooking methods. Alternately, some point out that food designed especially for microwave use, such as frozen dinners, may be less appealing or include more additives and preservatives than food cooked from scratch. Physical Risks of Microwave Ovens In terms of actual physical risk to users, there aren’t really all that many. However, for those concerned about possible things that can go wrong with their microwave ovens, here are some safety concerns: Damaged Units A severely broken microwave oven usually may not work at all, so problem solved. But if the unit’s case, door or window is warped, cracked or exposed, it could potentially release more radiation than standard acceptable levels, especially the closer someone is to it and the longer amount of time they’re exposed to it. The magnetron, which powers the unit, could also be out of alignment or off-center, which can change the temperature of food or the amount of time it takes to cook. Not everyone knows that each microwave on the American market is certified to release a certain acceptable low level of radiation. The FDA certifies this level as 5 milliwatts per square centimeter 2 inches from the surface of the oven, which is deemed a safe distance and a safe amount of radiation for human health. The energy output also decreases the further away someone stands. Certified microwaves also have safeguards in the door and latch system to stop power if or when the door is opened. If your microwave has sustained an unknown amount of damage, even if it still seems to work, manufacturers recommend replacing it. Metal Microwaves heat food by passing through it and agitating the food molecules, which causes them to heat up. Microwave-safe containers, such as paper or ceramic, also allow the waves to pass harmlessly through the container and into the food. However, metal can block or reflect the waves, perhaps from a forgotten fork or spoon, a to-go container, a coffee tumbler or even the rim on some china dinnerware. The reflections can sometimes cause sparks of electrical discharge and heat, and prolonged cooking will likely cause your microwave to short out and shut down. A worst case situation can be a small explosion or fire. In some controlled cases, however, like some brands of microwave pizza, certain packaging includes strategically-positioned aluminum which reflects onto the food to make it heat it faster and more evenly. Metal with sharp edges, like forks or knives, also seem to cause a greater risk of sparking or arcing than metal with rounded, smoother edges. High Heat One of the stated risks of microwave cooking is that food or liquid can become dangerously hot, even with a relatively quick cooking time. This reason is why many prepared meal instructions usually recommend letting your item cool for at least a minute as a final step before serving or eating. High-temperature food or drink can cause burns inside the mouth or even the body from hot steam. What’s even more potentially concerning is unexpected bursts of hot liquid. When you heat items on a stove to a boil, a constant amount of bubbles remove some of the excess heat. However, in microwaves, no bubbles can escape while it’s cooking. There’s a risk that bubbles will begin bursting when you open the door — it could make a mess of the microwave’s interior, or splatter you or the counters with painfully hot liquid. This heat build-up can also be reduced by not completely covering an item with a lid, or poking holes in any plastic covering. Less Safe Microwave-Safe Containers Newer research is now discouraging people from heating food in plastic containers. Though these don’t have the risk of fire like cooking metal could, experts believe that elements of the container can leach into food as it cooks, including potential cancer-causing chemicals. Not all inorganic materials like plastics are hazardous, but the FDA has said a compound called phthalates, which makes plastic soft, and bisphenol A, which makes plastics hard, are both of concern as possible biological risks to human health, although their use hasn’t been banned except for baby bottles and cups. Current best practices for microwave users to avoid the risk of leaching is to look for any product that says “microwave safe,” plastic or not, and consider using glass or ceramic only, and discarding plastic containers that have been used in the microwave for years. Styrofoam containers were originally believed to be linked to possible contaminants in microwaves as well, but current research has declared them to be safe. How to Properly Clean Your Microwave Older Microwaves The first commercial microwave, created by Raytheon in 1945, weighed 750 pounds and stood about 6 feet tall. Today’s devices are about the size of a breadbox and available in all sorts of colors to match anyone’s kitchen decor. The available power has also changed as well: it can take less time to prepare something in a microwave than it did decades ago. Whether all older microwaves are completely safe or unsafe is a big unknown — variables can depend on how long they have been in use, their manufacturer and similar specifics. Tool and home improvement stores sell portable leakage detectors that can be used for any type of radiation, and can measure the amount of radiation coming out of a microwave. These can give a clue as to any radiation risks, especially from something older or unknown. Generally, if you’re looking for power and reliability, not to mention better use of kitchen space, or are just uncertain about the history or condition of an older model, it might be time to upgrade regardless. Different International Standards While the American FDA standard is 5 milliwatts per square centimeter 2 inches from the surface, the World Health Organization has been advocating broader international standards for all products that give out electromagnetic radiation. The current European standard is 50 watts per square meter, 5 centimeters away from the surface. It still falls within harmless levels but is higher than the FDA standard. Overall, the microwave, while it continues to grow in popularity in American homes, has been the source of many safety-related fears and rumors over the decades. Some of these may be due to its original military applications, or perhaps some distrust of technology which threatens to replace scratch cooking, or even a misunderstanding of the ‘invisible’ cooking process. However, many of these uncertainties have either been debunked or at least made less relevant as technology continues to improve. One suggestion is to focus less on the potential risks of the device itself but what you’re cooking in it — something with poor nutrition won’t be as good for you as vegetables!