The urban legend goes like this: Stand too close to a microwave, and your body could be bombarded with secondhand radiation that gives you cancer.
The FDA, however, claims that microwaves are perfectly safe.
So who’s telling the truth? Surprise! It’s the FDA, since there’s currently no evidence that proves microwaves can release enough radiation to actually do any damage to your body.
That said, let’s get one thing straight: Microwaves do emit radiation, technically speaking. But it’s not the DNA-damaging radiation we’re used to hearing about. Microwaves, along with radio waves from (you guessed it) radio and cell phone towers, are types of non-ionizing radiation, and despite significant research, scientists have struggled to prove a definitive link between non-ionizing radiation and cancer (although there have been several studies that show a correlation).
Even if the radiation in microwaves could cause cancer, it still wouldn’t be able to escape the microwave in high enough amounts to harm you. That’s because the rays they use to “nuke” your food aren’t released into the environment — or into impatient bystanders waiting for the popcorn to pop. In fact, the FDA actually keeps a pretty tight lid on how many waves microwaves are allowed to emit, and that number is far lower than anything that could fry your cells.
The FDA does note, however, that upkeep is important: Any damage to hinges or latches could allow more radiation to be released. But as long as your microwave is in good working order, the most likely injury is in the form of burns from overheated food (or in more rare cases, superheated water that explodes in your face — yes, such a phenomenon exists).
Of course, the potential damage of leaking radiation isn’t the only concern about microwaves. Since a microwave doesn’t cook food with heat like a conventional oven — microwave ovens “excite” atoms, cooking food evenly throughout, rather than from the outside in — the health concerns surrounding this modern cooking method also include the nuked food itself.
Some researchers suggest that exciting the cells in your food by microwaving them causes chemical changes in the food itself. When the cells are altered, research shows, the body digests them differently, and this abnormal digestion process might increase the risk of developing cancerous cells. However, evidence of this claim in reputable, peer-reviewed journals is nearly impossible to come by, and the USDA maintains that food exposed to this type of radiation doesn’t transfer to our bodies. In fact, some studies suggest that exposing food to electromagnetic rays can actually kill bacteria (as with irradiated meat), making it safer to eat (and in the case of mushrooms, healthier).
Essentially, while that microwave dinner you’re hunched over may taste like poison, you can rest assured that the cholesterol in your tray of mac ’n’ cheese is sure to kill you long before any microwave-emitted radiation.