Are Microwave Ovens Safe?

An examination of the various claims that microwaved food and water are poisonous.

Filed under Health, Urban Legends

Skeptoid #80
December 25, 2007
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Microwave Ovens
Artwork: Nathan Bebb

Today we're going to walk on the wild side and eat some microwaved food. You've never really lived until you've lived dangerously, so let's put our lives on the line by testing the claims that microwaved food and water are toxic.

First, a little background info. Microwave ovens work by passing microwave-band electromagnetic radiation over the food at 2.5 GHz. Molecules that are electric dipoles, of which water is the most efficient, rotate back and forth in this field. The friction between them creates heat. This is called dielectric heating. More complex molecules, which are not as clearly dipolar, are not affected. It's an efficient and clean way to heat food.

I first learned about the claims of danger from a chain email sent by a friend of mine who tends to believe anything that's anti-establishment or on the fringe. A few Internet searches of some keywords reveal a huge number of holistic, organic, and other alternative web sites repeating these same claims. Just to give you a flavor of how far-out these stories are, give a listen to this list of "Ten Reasons to Throw Out Your Microwave Oven". As I read these off, notice that not one of them makes a specific or testable claim; they are all merely scary sentences constructed using scientific sounding words. And, as you can tell from the brief description of how microwaves work, few of these have any remote connection to fact:

  1. Continually eating food processed from a microwave oven causes long term — permanent — brain damage by "shorting out" electrical impulses in the brain, de-polarizing or de-magnetizing the brain tissue.
  2. The human body cannot metabolize the unknown byproducts created in microwaved food.
  3. Male and female hormone production is shut down and/or altered by continually eating microwaved foods.
  4. The effects of microwaved food by-products are permanent within the human body.
  5. Minerals, vitamins, and nutrients of all microwaved food is reduced or altered so that the human body gets little or no benefit, or the human body absorbs altered compounds that cannot be broken down.
  6. The minerals in vegetables are altered into cancerous free radicals when cooked in microwave ovens.
  7. Microwaved foods cause stomach and intestinal cancer tumors. This may explain the rapidly increased rate of colon cancer in America.
  8. The prolonged eating of microwaved foods causes cancerous cells to increase in human blood.
  9. Continual ingestion of microwaved food causes immune system deficiencies through lymph gland and blood serum alterations.
  10. Eating microwaved food causes loss of memory, concentration, emotional instability, and a decrease of intelligence.

One clue that might encourage you to regard these claims with some skepticism is that fact that ever since microwave ovens came on the market in 1954, not one person has ever exhibited a single symptom of any illness resulting from having eaten microwaved food, or from having used water that had been microwaved. Burns are the exception, but burns are caused by heat from any source; that's not unique to microwaves. But if you believe the claims by the anti-microwave fringe, whom I call the Microwave Militia, practically everyone on the planet should be gravely ill with cancer, radiation poisoning, malnutrition, and mental retardation.

The same chain email, and many of these web sites, also state that giving a plant water that has been microwaved will kill it. There is even a series of unsourced photographs of two plants, one of which withers and dies while its sibling flourishes. The awesome web site Snopes.com tested this particular claim. They took three plants of each of several types, and watered one with tap water, one with water that had been boiled over a stove, and the third with water that had been boiled in a microwave. Unlike whoever took the pictures that often accompany the chain email, Snopes actually controlled for other variables. I'm sure you won't have to stretch your imagination very far to guess how the plants did. They all did exactly the same. Snopes has complete details and photographs on their web site. Somehow these plants managed to escape the guaranteed death sentence that believers say microwaved water carries.

This whole paranoid suggestion is based on the presumption that a microwave oven somehow changes or poisons water. If true, wouldn't you be able to perform some kind of a test on water, and see if it has ever been microwaved? Water is H2O, whether it's ever been microwaved or not. But here's an even deal for you. If you truly believe that H2O carries some permanent damage as a result of being microwaved, and that it's possible to detect this damage through any means you choose, there's a million dollars in it for you. As you may know, the Skeptoid podcast is a qualifying media outlet for the James Randi Educational Foundation's Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge. I'll walk it through for you and I'll become your biggest cheerleader. Are microwaves really a danger to humanity? If so, it would be immoral for you to do anything else but take that million dollars and use it to educate and save the world.

Probably the most flagrant error that the Microwave Militia propagates is that microwaved food or water contains what they call "radiolytic compounds" — new chemicals created by the tearing apart of molecules in a microwave. These new chemicals are said to be dangerous, cancerous, radioactive, unnatural, or otherwise harmful. This is a demonstrably false claim. Radiolysis, which is a real process and which the Militia believes creates these radiolytic compounds, is the process by which molecules are dissociated under ionizing radiation. Water can be dissociated under ionizing alpha particle bombardment, which is a natural process. Microwave radiation, as mentioned earlier, is not ionizing radiation. It is thus scientifically incapable of causing radiolysis. The differences between microwave radiation and alpha radiation are huge. With the claim that microwaves cause dissociation of water molecules, the Microwave Militia is either deliberately lying, or they are grossly ignorant of the very subject on which they claim superior expertise.

Swiss vegetarianism advocate Dr. Hans Hertel is perhaps the most vocal of the Microwave Militia fringe group. He is quoted in virtually every book written on alternative foods or holistic health. A top-selling book on Amazon called Perfect Balance, by an author known simply as "Atreya", writes:

In spite of the political pressure, Hertel has continued his studies and won the support of many other scientists in Europe for his findings and methodology. Hertel concludes that microwaved food alters the blood chemistry of people who eat it. The manufacturing companies are trying to keep this information suppressed through court orders.

Dr. Hertel seems to have managed to gain this claimed following even without producing the most basic of information that prospective groupies should request: a specific, testable claim about what this change in blood chemistry might be; or a single victim. He is best known for his most publicized test. In 1989, he and seven fellow vegetarians confined themselves to a hotel and consumed only milk and vegetables, prepared in different ways, for two months. When he emerged, he announced his results: That microwave ovens cause cancer and degenerative diseases, despite no cases of cancer or illness among he or his group. His research, if you want to call it that, was never peer reviewed or published in any reputable journal, and yet it has become the foundational magnum opus of the anti-microwave agenda.

You'll also find that there are a large number of studies out finding changes to the nutritional content of food that has been microwaved, and the Microwave Militia loves to point to these. Chemical reactions happen whenever any food is cooked, so this has more to do with cooking than with the cooking method. Moreover, such changes are generally well below any perceptible threshold, and have always been found to be safe.

The Microwave Militia also makes claims such as microwave ovens are illegal in Russia or other parts of Europe. This is just a straight-up lie. Microwaves are perfectly legal in Russia and everywhere else in Europe. In fact I was not able to find a single country in the world that bans microwave ovens. They're regulated, of course, like all electric appliances; but regulation should not be mischaracterized as a ban.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

So what's the sum total of our evidence? Billions of people have been eating microwaved food for decades, with no ill effects, and no plausible expectation of ill effects. The best evidence put forward by anti-microwave activists is based on shameless lies and irresponsibly bad science. Thus, a truly skeptical process leads us to the conclusion that there's nothing at all wrong with microwaving your food. However, I'm drinking coffee right now made from microwaved water, and it's entirely possible that this has caused profound mental aberration, and made me spout nonsense.

Follow me on Twitter @BrianDunning.

Brian Dunning

© 2007 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Dr. Hans Hertel. NEXUS Magazine. Mapleton, Australia: Mercola, 1995. Volume 2, #25.

Kleinerman, R.A., Linet, M.S., Hatch, E.E., Tarone, R.E., Black, P.M., Selker, R.G., Shapiro, W.R., Fine, H.A., Inskip, P.D. "Self-reported electrical appliance use and risk of adult brain tumors." American Journal of Epidemiology. 15 Jan. 2005, Volume 161, Number 2: 136-146.

Latimer, Joan M,, Matsen, John M. "Microwave oven irradiation as a method for bacterial decontamination in a clinical microbiology laboratory." Journal of Clinical Microbiology. 1 Oct. 1977, Volume 6, Number 4: 340-342.

Mikkelson, Barbara, Mikkelson, David P. "Boiling Point." snopes.com: Microwaved Water - See What It Does to Plants. snopes.com, 22 Aug. 2006. Web. 5 Dec. 2009. <http://www.snopes.com/science/microwave/plants.asp>

Mudgett, R. "Electromagnetic energy and food processing." Journal of Microwave Power and Electromagnetic Energy. 1 Dec. 1988, Volume 23, Number 4: 225-230.

Welt, B. A., Tong, C. H. , Rossen, J. L., Lund, D. B. "Effect of microwave radiation on inactivation of Clostridium sporogenes (PA 3679) spores." Applied and Environmental Microbiology. 1 Feb. 1994, Volume 60, Number 2: 482-488.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Are Microwave Ovens Safe?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 25 Dec 2007. Web. 24 Apr 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4080>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 122 comments

I was wondering who has seen this or thinks not on the food that is produced by cooking in a microwave, but what happens when I spend my whole life with my face pressed to the conveniently lit, rotating plate!

It's supposedly being in the presence of the machine while it's in use and the length of exposure to all emf's during your life time.

http://www.magdahavas.com/pick-of-the-week-24-microwave-radiation-affects-the-heart/

radiophobe, Washington
August 03, 2013 12:52pm

It continues to amuse me when history illuminates the medical benefits of smoking in the 1930s, the use of blood letting for sick patients a tad before that, the invitation for school children to play with asbestos "the new wonder substance" at the world fair in the 50's...Once upon a time the earth was flat, we believed everything our governments told us & echinacea doesn't work... oh no, hang on, it does now because a scientific study was completed in the last year or two.What I'd prefer to see is people with less interest in absolutes but with minds open enough to stay alert, explore the possibilities and see where the connections may lie in the widest sense not just in the specific criteria for justifying points of view re polarising arguements. Having worked in conventional and complementary therapies, I see different people respond and react to different situations, compounds, environments etc, in very different ways. We have those who get drunk on orange juice,who are allergic to water, who allegedly are cured of cancer by prayer, so nothing should be discounted.With increasing mobile phone usage, fracking, more pollutants in our air, we have no idea LONG TERM how these cocktails of modern living will and do affect us. One healthy man's diet of nightly mircowaved TV dinners might be another woman's nudge over the tipping point that induces ill health. We have much to learn and in years to come future generations will amuse themselves at our naivety linear thinking.

Andrewilliam, London
August 24, 2013 9:27am

Technically, acupuncture is precisely a blood letting allopathy.

Cocktails of recent living include deadly horse borne and drawn travel (associated pollution and intractability), lack of a coherent therapeutic pharmaceutical, lack of diagnostic modalities, allopathy modalities could start a very similar comment Andrewilliam.

I am surprised that we are considered linear thinkers. Over my lifetime the exponential advance of populations with supporting technologies and underpinning discovery has certainly covered the maladies of recent living.

Maybe answer this when you are 90? Thats unless one of those horses doesnt do a Curie to you in the mean time..

Where would modern medicine be without just the minor contributions by Faraday, Roentgen, Becquerel and the Curies during recent living?

Recent living? back with the homeopaths, allopaths and vitalogists?

Mktwo Degreaser, Greenacres by the sea Oz
August 24, 2013 7:22pm

I just looking for ways that I might be able to improve my health as I battle an incurable disease. It might be that microwaved food is benign, but I have to give some consideration to ALL the information that is out there. Each year our lives and our planet become more and more toxic, mostly in the name of convenience and cheaper food. Even if only ONE of the purported bad side effects of microwaved food is true, think of the negative impact on the health of millions of people world-wide.

I plan to quit using a microwave as part of my health overhaul - I'm willing to try anything to avoid liver failure and death before I'm 60. I've seen what a microwave does to any type of bread product and to meat - shoe leather and hockey pucks!! Another thing I've noticed it that food heated in the microwave gets cold much quicker than food heated on the stovetop. I wonder why??

I think there's a lot we don't know about the long-term effects of microwaving our food. Just like what we didn't know about GMO's, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, food with hormones, etc. Like I said, it's a toxic world out there.

Fighting Liver Disease, Rocky Mountain High, CO
October 13, 2013 7:47pm

"Hertel’s conclusions were that microwaving food resulted in:
• Increased cholesterol levels ......"
marcus volke, ballarat
April 23, 2013 5:57am

I've been using microwave ovens almost from the day they were invented, and can't see no problem.
I "increased my cholestrol levels" all by myself by eating junk food and other garbage, and didn't need no help from no oven!

"However, I'm drinking coffee right now made from microwaved water, and it's entirely possible that this has caused profound mental aberration, and made me spout nonsense."

Yeah, it made you spout Skeptical "nonsense"!

Just consult with any "believer" in woo, and they'll be glad to tell you its "all the coffee's fault" that you're "narrow minded"! :D

Ron, Calgary Alberta Canada
October 20, 2013 4:20pm

He didn't said that microwaves are bannes, they WERE banned in the USSR before the fall of the Union.

It has been proved that they are damaging the nutrients more than conventional cooking (which is enough reason for me not to use it)

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jsfa.1585/abstract

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11238815?dopt=Abstract

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18240290

Greta, Switzerland
December 06, 2013 1:17am

I have heard that microwaving some foods will cause amino acids to change their enantiomeric form from the naturally occurring one to one which is toxic.

The specific concern raised on a BBC Radio 4 program was that heating baby milk in a microwave produced a neurotoxic enantiomeric form in measurable quantity.

This seems obscure and perfectly plausible, so while not disagreeing with any of the specific points you raise above, I suspect there may be more to check out.

Cheers, J/.

John@T4sLtd.co.uk

John Beardmore, Derbyshire UK
January 14, 2014 7:04pm

The Mythbusters tested the microwaved water on plants in their episode last night.

Result: Myth Busted.

Dave, Lexington, Kentucky, USA
February 02, 2014 7:58am

This is why I love that you include the links to old 'casts at the bottom of new ones; I hadn't seen this one before. This is one of the most entertaining comment sections I've read yet! I had no idea there was such a great number of people who are "anti-microwave."

Some of my personal favorites are the "microwaves are a Chinese conspiracy" claim, and the assertion that some of the rats in an experiment were "exposed to cancer."

Just typing that made me laugh again!

Ben, Columbus OH
February 07, 2014 9:56am

I live in Africa. When I was young we had no refrigerator, no microwave. Our food were organic, in -fact the farm was next door. Most diseases we hear now are new to us. Of course there were illnesses and diseases that were known but cancer was new so also were many other diseases.

Now we have microwave, refrigerators, air conditioners, we now have processed canned foods of all sort and now also we have the accompany accolades

I guess both side of the divide have some logic.

Deji Ajose, Nigeria
April 20, 2014 1:45am

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