Don’t stand in front of the microwave!!!” 

Everyone’s grandmother has cautioned them with this advice on multiple occasions. In fact, my grandmother still retreats to the far side of her kitchen while the malevolent “Cancer Machine” is churning out its waves of malignant Hiroshima style explosive radiation. But where does this fact of culinary information come from? And is it really anywhere near to true as Grandma claims it is? Or, is it maybe, just slightly possible that General Electric didn’t in fact install sleek white plastic death in your kitchen?

tv-dinnerNot long ago I read an article regarding a child’s school science project. If you’d like to read a bit about it first, by all means, go ahead: Microwaving water and then giving it to plants: Sham Science Project. Don’t trust every 9 year old’s science fair experiment. They don’t have PhD’s for a reason folks! There are quite a few things wrong with this experiment, I’ll just list a few problems for you. First, and most importantly, there are only two plants here. If this were going to be a truly scientific experiment, you really would need several of each plant, and possibly several of many types of plants to be able to ignore simple errors in handling. Secondly, and related to the first point: we don’t know if there was something wrong with the plant that was microwaved to begin with. Was it’s soil mishandled in some way, was it’s positioning in relation to it‘s light source not as optimal for some reason. Did it just “gasp”, die, as some plants are wont to do? Finally, the experiment doesn’t actually tell us anything about what a microwave actually does to water, or food, or gerbils…..

So whats the deal with microwave ovens and how much cancer can you get from them actually? 

Surprisingly enough the answer is pretty much none! To figure out why, lets talk about how a microwave works (without actually going too deep into Radio Frequency Engineering). First off, microwaves create well….. microwaves! Ok, so what is a microwave?  In essence, it’s an electric field, like what comes out of a remote control, or a garage door opener, or a cell phone. The difference is the level of power. While a cell phone transmits milli-watts (that’s thousandths of a watt) of power, your average microwave oven is advertised in the 1200 watt range. I know, that sounds like a whole lot, until you understand what type of radiation we’re talking about. Microwave ovens make use of a type of field called non-ionizing. Non-ionizing radiation is a magnetic field in the visible/infrared wavelengths, not generally harmful  to people. Unlike ionizing radiation, which encompasses Gamma-radiation, x-rays, Ultra-violet light, etc (Cancer causing inviso-stuff).

ugly-old-lady-grandma-shock-surprise-afraid-scared-thumb19862914So right off the bat, you’re in pretty good shape (unless you jam your hand in the thing and turn it on). So what does non-ionizing radiation do? Well in the case of a microwave oven, it causes water to dance. What? No, really, it does. You remember high school chemistry? Water has a positive side, and a negative side. So when the water (present in all food in some amount) gets struck by the microwave energy it attempts to line itself up with the electric field, like a magnet. As the field changes direction so does the water. The effect is vibrating water. That vibration makes heat, and that heat cooks your food, or reheats your Hungry Man TV-dinner! So when the microwave stops producing energy (ding!) the water stops vibrating, leaving your food unchanged from before (un-radiated) only now its hot!

But what about Grandma’s dire warning!? “Don’t stand in front of that contraption, cause it’s got a window!” Well, not really. You see, microwave ovens transmit energy at a specific frequency, 2.4 Gigahertz (that’s giga, like Gerber, not giga like jigga, sorry Doc Brown!). At 2.4 GHz the radiation has a wavelength of about 4.8 inches. So what? Well, that radiation can’t escape a hole smaller than ¼ it’s overall wavelength. So in reality, if you were going to get cooked by your microwave by standing in front of it, the holes in that front screen would have to be bigger than 1.2 inches. Go ahead and measure them, I’ll wait right here……

Oh good, you’re back! Well now that we’ve got that settled, I think you all understand exactly how your kitchen nuker won’t kill you!
And uh, PS…. If you stick your hand in the microwave and somehow force it to begin operation, the non-ionizing radiation will cause your hand to get very hot, very quickly. Serious, terrible, life altering burns WILL be your final door prize…..

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