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Is Your Microwave Oven Safe?

By Lisa Poisso

Coffee or hot chamomile tea before breakfast … last night’s leftovers for lunch … a frozen lasagna for dinner … What would you do without your handy-dandy microwave? Most of us routinely “nuke” foods throughout the day — but are microwave ovens safe?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says yes, microwaves are safe. The FDA, which has regulated microwave safety since 1971, says it “believes that ovens that meet the FDA standard and are used according to the manufacturer's instructions are safe for use.” But the agency also notes that questions still remain and offers safety precautions to keep you and your family safe.

How safe is your oven?
Inside your microwave oven, an electron tube called a magnetron produces the microwaves, which bounce around inside the oven’s metal interior until they are absorbed by food. The microwaves cause water molecules in the food to vibrate, producing heat that cooks the food. Since the microwave energy is changed to heat as soon as it is absorbed by food, it cannot make food radioactive or “contaminated.”

All microwave ovens manufactured since October 1971 are covered by FDA safety standards. These standards limit the amount of microwaves that can leak from an oven throughout its lifetime and require ovens to have two independent locking systems that stop the production of microwaves the moment the latch is released or the door is opened. A mandatory monitoring system cuts off operation in case one or both locking systems fail.

So what about that noise your microwave makes for a moment after the door is opened, you ask? It’s the fan, and the sound doesn’t mean that microwaves are still being produced. Once the door is opened, the oven turns off and the microwaves disappear. They don’t linger in the oven or your food.

Still, the FDA leaves some wiggle room in declaring microwave ovens completely safe, saying that it continues to reassess the situation as new information becomes available.

What about microwaving itself?
While a good deal of research exists on the effects of exposure to high levels of microwaves, less is known about what happens to people with long-term, low-level exposure. The studies that do exist leave questions. One study noted by the FDA showed that repeated exposure to low-level microwave radiation does not cause cataracts (common in cases of acute microwave exposure) in rabbits.

On the other hand, some animals display avoidance reactions when exposed to low levels of microwaves — that is, they try to get away from the microwaves. Also noted were a decreased ability to perform certain tasks, genetic changes and immune responses (the body reacts as if protecting itself from a disease). “While these and similar effects have been observed in animals, their significance for human health remains unclear,” claims the FDA.

You used to see signs warning people with pacemakers away from any restaurant or business where microwave ovens were in use. Today’s cardiac pacemakers and other medical devices are shielded against electrical interference, and most places no longer post warning signs. Still, people with pacemakers may wish to consult their physicians about microwave use and safety.

Are there even more dangers associated with microwave ovens? Some groups claim there are. Web sites and articles have raised issues of nutrient loss, chemical reactions in foods that are different from those occurring during conventional heating and the creation of cancer-causing substances when plastics are heated. Visit one web site that shares these concerns at

FDA tips for microwave safety
• Follow the manufacturer's instruction manual for recommended operating procedures and safety precautions for your oven model.
• Don't operate an oven if the door does not close firmly or is bent, warped or otherwise damaged.
• Never operate an oven if you have reason to believe it will continue to operate with the door open.
• To add to the margin of safety already built into the oven, don't stand directly against an oven (and don't allow children to do this) for long periods of time while it is operating.

© Lisa Poisso; this article first appeared at Dallas Child magazine

NFO Editor-in-Chief Lisa Poisso is a writer and editor specializing in attachment parenting, natural family living and — in her “other” life — gaming.

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