Scientists Give the Final Word on Whether Microwaves Are Dangerous

The American Chemical Society is out to bust food-preparation myths, but will the public listen?
Jun 2, 2015·
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Microwave truthers are a little like birthers or climate change deniers: Despite evidence to the contrary, they keep on believing something that's not true. In the case of microwaves, thanks to decades of misinformation, plenty of Americans believe heating up food in one of the appliances will give them cancer or will otherwise negatively affect their health. Now, the American Chemical Society, a nonprofit organization that supports the nation’s chemists, is out to set the record straight once and for all, with, you know, science.

With its new video series, Reactions, the organization intends to “fact check all those health warnings you’ve grown up with,” according to its YouTube page. To that end, the scientists take on the irrational fear of microwaves in the first episode, and concerns about the nutritional content of frozen veggies in the second.

The clip above on microwaves helpfully takes us through the science of how they work. As the narrator explains, it’s key that we remember that “radiation doesn’t mean radioactive.” That's a critical distinction because the language we use to describe how we cook food in a microwave—we “nuke” some frozen peas—is associated with the dangerous isotopes released when an atomic bomb is dropped or when a nuclear reactor melts down. No wonder folks still think that using a microwave will make them sick.

As for whether microwaves are dangerous, the narrator also explains that the Food and Drug Administration regulates how much radiation the appliances can emit—and it’s a seriously small amount. The frequency is so low it can't damage our DNA.

No, you don’t want to press your face against the outside of a microwave all day, every day, while it’s turned on. However, you also wouldn’t stick your hand in the hot flame of a stove. “There has never been any research to show that microwave ovens can cause any long-term damage to people, so let’s just drop it, folks,” says the video's narrator.

As for the frozen-versus-fresh debate, as the narrator says in the clip below, “when vegetables are chosen for freezing, they are picked at the peak of their ripeness—which also means at the peak of their nutritional value.”

The video explains that frozen vegetables aren’t just plucked out of the ground or off a vine and tossed into a freezer bag. They first are blanched—briefly immersed in boiling water, which cleans them and halts the ripening process. That means frozen veggies such as asparagus are more nutritionally sound than their fresh cousins that get picked, boxed up, and trucked or shipped hundreds of miles to a grocery store, where they sit on a shelf until a consumer comes along to buy them. Half of the fresh produce we purchase ends up being chucked in the garbage because that ripening process never stops.

So will these videos convince folks who are opposed to microwaves or frozen vegetables that there’s nothing wrong with them? The battle to change people's minds about microwaves is an uphill one. Despite study after study finding that nothing is wrong with them, sales of microwaves have dropped 25 percent since 2000. Given the nation’s skyrocketing obesity problem, that's probably too bad. After all, instead of rolling through a fast-food drive-through, folks could be showing their kids how easy it is to zap a frozen bag of veggies.