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Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Microwaves

Are your kitchen appliances spying on you? Do meth addicts really love nuking babies? Let’s find out the truth.

The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Microwaves. Are we gambling with death every time we heat up a burrito? 

Lie #1: Microwaves Give You Cancer

Microwaves are a form of radiation, and some forms of radiation cause cancer. That’s why radiologists step out of the room during x-rays, for instance, and why in real life, Bruce Banner’s massive exposure to gamma rays would be much more likely to lead to a painful, cancer-ridden death than a rockin’ green bod.

However, according to Scientific American, the forms of radiation that cause cancer are the ones with enough energy to ionise cells within the body and change their structure, which is something microwaves aren’t strong enough to do. Instead, they work by causing water molecules in food to vibrate, leading to heat — nothing is structurally transformed, just shaken about a lot. If you had a microwave big enough to crawl inside, yes, it would absolutely kill the shit out of you, but not via cancer — just from good old-fashioned burning to death.

Lie #2: Tweakers Just Can’t Stop Nuking Babies

Both Heat and True Detective feature tales of meth-heads microwaving infants, in an updated version of the “stoned babysitter puts the baby in the oven because the silly, high hippie thinks it’s a turkey” urban legend (in Heat it’s to stop the baby crying, in True Detective it’s an attempt to dry a wet child).

Now, there certainly have been grisly incidents involving people putting their children in microwaves, but never as a direct result of being drug-fucked. In 1995, a Michigan man shut his 22-month-old daughter in a microwave “to discipline her,” but thankfully didn’t turn it on. In separate incidents in 1999 and 2012, babies were killed after their mothers, disoriented following epileptic seizures, cooked them in microwaves. In 2007, a Texas pastor microwaved his daughter (who survived) after stopping his schizophrenia medication. And, in 2008, an Ohio woman murdered her month-old daughter in a microwave following a drunken argument about her paternity. 

All of which should rightly be making you feel sick to your stomach by now, but again, almost every case was the result of serious mental illness rather than drug abuse.

Lie #3: Baddies Are Spying on You Through Your Microwave

In 2017, unhinged White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told a reporter that “microwaves that can turn into cameras” were used to spy on Donald Trump during his campaign. While she later backtracked on the insinuation that this was the work of Barack Obama (“I’m not Inspector Gadget. I don’t believe people are using the microwave to spy on the Trump campaign. However, I’m not in the job of having evidence”), are people really being photographed and listened to while defrosting chicken?

Theoretically anything and everything might be used to spy on people, but it’s much more likely to be something with, uh, cameras, microphones and the ability to transmit information. Smart TVs have all of those — they transmit data about your viewing habits to third parties and are pretty much spying on you all the time. If you’re a spy and want to fit a super-secret camera and teeny-tiny mic onto someone’s microwave, go for it, but you’re probably missing a trick by ignoring laptops, phones and other smart devices that are doing half the work for you. Also, a microwave is pretty much the worst choice of any household gadget to turn into a surveillance device — according to industry bible Microwaves & RF, when it’s running, the electromagnetic field it generates will likely disrupt any and all transmitting it’s doing.

As an aside, voice-activated, assistant-enabled microwaves like Amazon’s Alexa-powered models are another story, and are likely to share the same vulnerabilities as other smart devices. But let’s put it this way: If you’re worried about being spied on and you choose to fill your house with listening devices, you’re a dumb, dumb, dumbass.

What some of this possibly stems from is confusion between microwaves (the ovens) and microwaves (the electromagnetic waves). In the 1970s, for instance, Soviet intelligence agencies bombarded the U.S. Embassy in Moscow with microwaves to try to block communications and jam equipment. The microwaves in this sense were the electromagnetic kind — at no point were a shitload of electric cookers thrown over a wall to disrupt U.S. operations (although that would’ve been pretty great, too).

Lie #4: Nuking Food Kills All the Nutrients in It

According to no less an authority than Harvard Medical School, microwaving vegetables retains more nutrients than most other cooking methods due to reduced cooking times, with less goodness leaching out than with something like boiling. The crunchier the better though — learn to love veggies al dente. Oh, and be sure to try the mushrooms.

Lie #5: Watching Your Food Cook Will Fry Your Eyeballs

There’s something oddly compelling about a slowly rotating lasagne, every revolution bringing it a smidge closer to deliciousness. But, as everyone knows, staring into the microwave while it cooks will, like, melt your eyes and stuff — it’s well enough established as a bad idea that it features in a Green Day video, among other go-to stoopid moves like rubbing shampoo in one’s eyes, going deep with Q-Tips and running through traffic.

However, it’s reasonable to think that a device that fucked you up if you looked at it (like the Ark of the Covenant) probably wouldn’t be deemed safe enough to be in hundreds of millions of kitchens. And while, yes, microwave ovens generate microwave radiation (it’s not just a clever name!) and the eye is particularly susceptible to radiation damage, that’s what the fuckin’ door is for — to stop the radiation from coming out.

As Thomas Steinemann, clinical spokesperson for the American Academy of Ophthalmology, told, “I don’t think there’s any harm in looking at what’s inside the microwave oven while it’s cooking. I have never seen or heard of anyone ever with an eye injury related to using a microwave.” 

In fact, a study leaving rats wedged against the door of a running microwave for half an hour a day concluded that, while the rats’ eyes were affected after a month, it was impossible to conclude anything about the effects on human eyes, as people don’t tend to be wedged against the door of a running microwave for half an hour a day. And if this does describe you, please ask someone else to look after your baby.