The average household is full of danger and peril. One need only look towards their kitchen to spot deathtrap after deathtrap. If you’re a three-year-old, we highly recommend you avoid this room entirely and instead navigate your way towards your playpen, where everything is soft, warm, and – most importantly – safe.
Now that the toddlers have clicked off of this article, we’ll assume that the rest of you are all fully functioning adults who are concerned for their own safety and that of their loved ones. Sure, we may have overstated the potential dangers that the common household may contain, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.
It’s no accident that we mentioned the kitchen in our opening paragraph, as it’s arguably the most dangerous room in your house. Not only do the things you cook have a strange tendency to catch fire when left on the stove or in the oven for too long (to be fair, maybe we should simply pay more attention when we cook), but there are plenty of other reasons to be on your toes while washing the dishes, baking a cake, or preparing dinner.
As you may have caught on by reading the title of this article, we’re referring to the potential dangers of microwaves. Do they pose any sort of significant health concerns? How can we avoid overexposure? We’ll answer those questions down below.
An Overview of Microwaves
There are many misconceptions surrounding microwaves, and that’s mostly due to the lack of common knowledge surrounding them. When people mention microwaves, many will immediately think of their use in the kitchen (due in no small part to our introduction to this article, of course) but there’s a lot more to these small waves of radiation than meets the eye.
That’s a pun that you’ll understand in a bit, because we are setting out to put those misconceptions to rest.
What Are Microwaves?
Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths that are smaller in range when compared to radio waves, which were more commonly used before the rise of microwave-based technology.
Let’s go back to that pun we mentioned earlier. Microwaves, unlike radio waves, travel by line of sight. This means that they do not diffract around hills, follow the surface of the earth, or reflect from the ionosphere.
More generally speaking, all of these attributes amount to microwaves being a poor form of any significant communication beyond a 1km radius, because the lines of sight are almost always obstructed. Further still, at the high end of the band, they are absorbed into the atmosphere, limiting their practical use in communication even more.
Despite all of this, however, microwaves are extensively used in various bits of modern technology, including radars and satellites. More commonly, they are used in garage door systems, keyless entryways, and – of course – for cooking in microwave ovens.
Uses of Microwaves in Everyday Life
Despite not being an effective form of long-distance communication, the various other practical uses for microwaves have led to their inclusion in the designs and of numerous technological devices, some of which can be encountered in the average household.
Radar is actually a radiolocation technique that also incorporates the use of microwaves, which – when properly implemented – are able to produce narrow beamwidths. These are crucial to accurately locate smaller objects (realistically, anything smaller than a skyscraper). This has led to their application in various forms of air traffic control, weather forecasting, the navigation of ships, and other things.
Of course, we all saw this one coming. Due to their small wavelengths, microwaves are able to pass through food, effectively heating it from the inside out.
Despite not being effective over long distances, microwave communication can still be commonly encountered in everyday life, most commonly in the form of Bluetooth technology, which now seems a lot more impressive.
How Does Microwave Radiation Work?
Before you retreat to the safety of your fallout bunker to wait out the devastating effects of a nuclear holocaust, you can rest assured that your microwave oven probably does not emit enough radiation to do any damage (unless you made it yourself in your own backyard with military-grade plutonium).
However, it is useful to understand how microwave radiation works. For all you know, you might purchase a new microwave oven one day and be able to use this knowledge to determine whether or not it is safe for use.
Let’s break it down. The term “microwave” refers to a form of electromagnetic radiation, waves of both electrical and magnetic energy moving together through space. Electromagnetic radiation spans an incredibly broad spectrum – from short gamma rays to longer radio waves – and the human eye can only perceive a very small part of this spectrum, which is called “visible light”. Luckily, we have other devices that can detect other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as radios and x-ray machines.
What does this mean for us? Fortunately, visible light, radio frequencies, and microwaves are all forms of non-ionizing radiation. That is to say, they’re all rather harmless, as they don’t have enough energy to be able to knock an electron from an atom.
X-rays, on the other hand, are a different story. They are a type of ionizing radiation, and exposure to this radiation can prove incredibly dangerous. Unlike their non-ionizing cousins, x-rays can alter atoms and molecules and can cause damage to cells in organic matter, such as human bodies.
Luckily, most homes won’t come equipped with an armory filled with ray guns. The point we are trying to make is that you have (mostly) nothing to fear from your microwave, provided you don’t put a metal fork in it or use it to boil water for too long. It may be time to throw away the old tinfoil hat, after all.
Microwaves Safety Standards
You may be asking yourself, “If microwave ovens are that dangerous, they surely would not be sold to the public, right?”
You’d be correct by thinking that. Microwaves are not allowed to be distributed if they do not meet the public health and safety standards. This is outlined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA has monitored the manufacturing of microwave ovens since 1971.
What are these safety standards, though? How can we trust the FDA to ensure our best interests are met concerning our health?
The FDA has done plenty of research on the dangers of microwave ovens, specifically with regards to electromagnetic radiation, as well as general safety practices when using these devices. Suffice it to say that if a microwave oven emits too much radiation and is generally unsafe to use (i.e., if it tends to spontaneously combust after selecting the ‘pre-heat’ option), then it is not eligible for distribution.
Microwave Radiation Injuries
Most readers will most likely be concerned about the potential danger of their microwave oven, as this is probably the most commonly encountered implementation of microwaves. Luckily, most microwave oven-related injuries are caused by excessive heat from containers, foods, drinks, or general misuse on the user’s part – not microwave radiation itself. That being said, while microwave radiation probably won’t affect you directly (assuming your microwave oven has been properly manufactured), it can have a profound effect on anything it comes into contact with.
Most notably, microwaves can heat up just about anything, which is why you don’t want to be exposed to them for too long. There’s a reason those FDA regulations for microwave ovens are in place.
Water, for example, can become superheated (meaning it has been heated past its boiling point) but show no signs of ever having been hot on the surface. If it is disturbed in any way, however, it will violently erupt, posing a huge danger to anyone nearby.
Additionally, anyone can be exposed to microwave radiation at any time. While this won’t pose a threat over a short period of time, if one is exposed to microwaves for too long – as with any form of radiation – one can come away with some seriously nasty burns and injuries.
Beyond that, however, many devices are produced according to extensive safety standards that are put in place to limit the amount of potential radiation leakage. All of this means that your chances of being affected by microwave radiation are extremely low.
The potential dangers of microwaves may be numerous, but – as we’ve said – the probability of you encountering one of them is relatively low. Still, common sense should be your guiding hand whenever you operate any device that makes use of microwaves (or any dangerous utility, for that matter).
There are a few other safety concerns and guidelines that you should be aware of when you are around or exposed to microwaves.
Protect Your Eyes…and Your Testes
We feel like we shouldn’t have to elaborate any further when it comes to the protection of both of these parts of your body. They are largely defenseless against most forms of damage, in general. RF heating, in particular, can be a huge detriment to their health.
That’s because both the eyes and the testes have relatively low blood flow, which is what usually aids in carrying away excess heat. Additionally, the lenses of your eyes are especially sensitive to excessive heat, and prolonged exposure to microwaves can cause cataracts.
Fortunately, the amount of radiation required to do any significant damage to these parts of your body is extensive, meaning you won’t be in danger from the general use of something like a microwave oven or other small device. Again, common sense is invaluable when it comes to ensuring your own safety.
Radiation Leakage and Other Concerns
Radiation leakage can be extremely dangerous, but you aren’t likely to be involved in any sort of environment where that might be a cause for concern. Again returning to our statement from earlier, any sort of instrument or device that uses microwaves wouldn’t have reached you if it hadn’t first been approved through an extensive set of safety standards.
Therefore, while radiation leakage is always possible, it is also always unlikely to occur within the common domestic household.
Are microwaves dangerous? Yes, but so is water if you drink too much of it or jump in the deep end without knowing how to swim. There may be crazy conspiracy theories about the dangers of microwaves, but these are usually totally half-baked and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
What we’ve presented here are the facts, one of which is that microwaves are only dangerous when you are overexposed to them, which will be highly unlikely for the average reader living in the average household. No, your microwave oven is not a terminator.
Still, your concerns are valid, and we hope to have alleviated them somewhat.