You may have heard before that standing in front of a microwave and absorbing the radiation it emits can cause serious damage to your health. But is this true? Could a common household appliance that many use daily be seriously dangerous? We did some digging to help answer these questions once and for all.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which has regulated microwave oven manufacturing since 1971—microwave ovens are a safe and effective way to heat food. And unless you're exposed to high levels of microwaves (think: way more than the amount emitted by your microwave oven), negative effects on the human body have not been confirmed. "There have been very rare instances of radiation injury due to unusual circumstances or improper servicing," their website reads. "Most injuries related to microwave ovens are the result of heat-related burns from hot containers, overheated foods, or exploding liquids. Most injuries are not radiation-related."
Safety Precautions to Take in Front of a Microwave
Microwaves do emit radiation, in a sense, but not the kind that would damage DNA or the kind we typically associate radiation with. We're exposed to radiation every day, from natural sources like the sun and sky, and man-made sources like TV signals and WiFi, though that doesn't necessarily mean it's life-threatening. "RF waves don’t have enough energy to damage DNA directly. Because of this, it’s not clear how RF radiation might be able to cause cancer. Some studies have found possible increased rates of certain types of tumors in lab animals exposed to RF radiation, but overall, the results of these types of studies have not provided clear answers so far," says the American Cancer Society. That said, be sure your microwave's hinges and latches are working properly to avoid more radiation to be released than is originally intended or burning yourself.
Additionally, The New York Times did some investigating of their own and found that standing in close proximity to your microwave is, for the most part, harmless. "Every microwave that reaches the market must meet a requirement limiting the amount of radiation it can leak in its lifetime to five milliwatts per square centimeter at roughly two inches away from the oven," the article reports. According to the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, that is far below the levels of radiation that have been shown to harm humans.
Though further long-term testing is needed to fully determine the effects of radiation exposure from microwave oven use, as long as your microwave's door closes tightly and the latch is secure, there's no reason to believe that standing next to your microwave machine, eagerly awaiting your popcorn to pop or leftovers to reheat, is hazardous to your health. "Microwave ovens are designed so that the microwaves are contained within the oven itself," says the American Cancer Society.
According to the American Cancer Society, do be careful of microwave ovens that are damaged or modified. These could allow microwaves to leak out and thus could pose a hazard to people nearby by causing burns.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Microwave Oven Radiation. Updated December 12, 2017.
American Cancer Society. Radiofrequency (RF) Radiation. Updated June 1, 2020.
The Claim: People Shouldn't Stand Too Close to Microwaves. New York Times. July 10, 2007.