Hello! Welcome to our first installment of Science Says. Where we take a controversial or otherwise popular bit of nonsense and dissect it down to its gooey bits to see how it does or doesn’t actually work.
If you aren’t familiar with this first entry consider yourself fortunate. I once had an argument with a 70 year old woman about this very thing that ended in bloodshed. Today we are going to discuss microwaves! The appliance, not the actual energy type–though that will make an appearance as well. So lets take a greasy stab at that start button and start slowly rotating towards freedom!
First, the nonsense.
There are several claims made about microwave ovens; They give you cancer, they destroy your food, they’re volatile boxes of radiation that create a mini Chernobyl in your kitchen, poisoning your water and exploding your heart. A lot of claims are actually based on real facts about microwaves, though the information is then improperly applied to reality. Others are based on completely incorrect information and orders of process from the very beginning. Let’s deconstruct a few of each and see where we end up.
* Microwaves use/leak poisonous, destructive radiation
* Microwaves destroy molecules and enzymes in food in the heating process, causing it to be devoid of nutritional value.
* Despite the dangers, Microwaves are kept in circulation due to payoffs from the manufacturers.
Now, the science.
Some people might be quick to tell you that every microwave oven leaks radiation, and by virtue of doing so, is only seconds from going full ark of the covenant.
This is technically true; microwaves do leak radiation, but there are several points that need to be made regarding this claim to dissect it beyond face (melting) value.
Microwaves operate at a frequency of 2.4Ghz. You may recognize that number as also being the frequency at which several other devices operate. Old cordless landline phones operated at 2.4ghz, as do the routing devices that create Wi-Fi. If you’ve ever been in a situation where your Wi-Fi stops working when you use the microwave, this is why. It’s due to interference from waves of the same frequency. Claiming that microwaves leak radiation as if they are the only source of microwaves flying through the air is extremely misleading, as this stuff completely surrounds us every day. The reason we don’t all walk around in a state of desperately needing stirred is due to the intensity, or power level, of the waves themselves.
so claiming that microwave ovens expel radiation is technically true, but we need to look at the type of radiation in question.
Microwaves use microwaves,
which are a type of electromagnetic energy.
There are many types of electromagnetic energy. The spectrum ranges all the way from radio waves (low frequency) up to gamma rays (high frequency) with Microwaves being just above standard radio waves, like the ones used for FM. The most important distinction of the scale is whether or not they land in the range as ionizing or non-ionizing radiation.
Ionizing radiation is what you don’t want. Exposing yourself to too much ionizing radiation will likely cause you to have a bad problem, and you may not go to space today. Ionizing radiation is when the energy surpasses an Electron Voltage level of anywhere between 10 and 33 eV, which is when electrons being to tear from atoms. These levels are almost exclusively seen in X and Gamma Rays, and are several orders of magnitude (roughly 4) more intense than Microwaves, which fall between 1.24 meV and 1.24 µeV. For those of you not familiar with those designations, m is milli and µ is micro, which translate to “small as fuck,” and “really seriously very fucking small,” respectively. Non-Ionizing radiation is basically all other forms of electromagnetic energy (which includes visible light from the sun/flashlight/ignited fart) that are perfectly harmless and won’t cause you to melt like that guy from earlier.
What does all of this gobbledygook mean? It means you couldn’t possibly have less to worry about in terms of being physically damaged by your microwave. Unless of course it falls on you or you close you finger/hand/head in it or something.
Moving on, we come to the idea that the process by which microwaves do their dirty sinful business causes molecules and enzymes to be destroyed, because they are unable to withstand the exposure of such forces. A lot of this goes back to the things explained in the previous entry, but we can at least discuss exactly how microwave ovens actually work.
Taking a second to reflect back on the last time you took a chemistry class, you may remember through the fog that water is made up of 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom. H2O. These atoms are stuck together by a polar covalent bond, which means they have opposing charges. The same reason magnets work. The Oxygen atom in the middle is negative, and the 2 Hydrogen atoms are positive.
Why is any of this important? Because this is how microwaves do their witchcraft. Since we’ve already established that microwaves are electromagnetic energy, it slides very nicely into the ol’ butt that electromagnetic energy would have an effect on something with electromagnetic charge! Microwave ovens heat water by sending oscillating positively/negatively charged waves all over the inside of the box, which cause the + and – atomic charges of the water molecules to rapidly change direction and vibrate, creating friction between the atoms. And because we already know the energy levels are far below those of Ionizing radiation, we can rest comfortably in knowing that nothing about the atomic structure of the water is changed by this process.
1) electromagnetic waves bounce around inside box with food
2) water molecules in food tumble around like bingo balls in a retirement home
3) friction from movement causes heat
As you can see, everything is lining up nicely. Funny thing about science, things make so much sense even when you boil them down to their smallest servings.
Lets now take a look at the final point of this dissection, and we’ll shift from science into logic.
To answer the question of why something so dangerous would be allowed to remain so ubiquitous, the only thing anti-microwave alarmists have in their arsenal is the conspiratorial classic of “everyone is being paid off.”
Supposedly the microwave manufacturers are paying hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars in bribes and squelching money to make sure they stay in circulation, despite all of the very clear dangers to everyone everywhere.
There are several problems with this idea. First of all, When is the last time you came across an exclusive manufacturer of microwaves? Samsung, GE, Whirlpool, Mitsubishi. These are all global electronic and appliance mega-giants. The percentage of their annual profit that is solely dedicated to microwave sales is likely a very small percentage, and is even more likely less than the amount of money that would be required to pay out to keep everyone quiet. Which is a number we won’t know, because clearly nobody would admit to being paid or to paying anyone.
This poses a second problem. It creates an infallibility loop–anyone who disagrees with the idea has been brainwashed or paid. Effectively rendering the possibility of being wrong completely unattainable. This is a consistent problem with conspiracy theories. Anything that you could normally use to challenge something becomes its own form of proof to confirm the narrative.
Another problem is that the bigger it gets the more people we are expected to believe take no issue with knowingly killing and poisoning millions of people, simply for the chance to gain several thousands of dollars. Ask anyone you know if they would agree to this sort of thing, and I bet you have a hard time finding recruits.
The last reality test is likely the most simple. Feel free to spend as much time as you like finding instances of these supposed negative effects having actually happened to anyone. Wouldn’t you think with so many millions or even billions of people using microwaves as often as they do in as many scenarios as can possibly be imagined, the number of news stories regarding burns, tumors, malnutrition, heart issues, and vision loss as a result would be completely inescapable? Yet we have none. Sure you can claim cover-up, but that only compounds the first two problems, sending you around and around in a circle, not unlike so many perfectly safe and wonderfully warm bowls of ramen.
Science Says: Microwaves heat food using safe, non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, and there is no evidence to suggest you have anything to worry about. Enjoy your meal!