September 17, 2008

Are Microwave Ovens Harmful to Health? Finding Better Research in an Age of Snopes.

Are Microwaves bad for you? Do they degrade the nutrients in your food? elephantjournal.com reports.

via Lindsey Wolf, an elephantjournaldotcom classic. Michael Pollan, in today’s Sunday NY Times, reports that 90% of American households have a microwave. Hard to believe that high.

My new apartment has a microwave. When I moved in, my first thought was about unplugging it, storing it, and using that precious space that it took up in my mini-kitchen. Then I got sick. Then I realized that I could heat up water for tea in the microwave faster than on the stove. So I started to wonder. What are the facts regarding health hazards of microwave cooking? Was I actually doing myself more harm than good?

I like to do research. It shouldn’t have been too challenging to find some quick answers from reliable sources, right? Not so easy. It seems that microwave oven safety issues are still in urban-legend land, with several outrageous entries on Snopes (the myth buster website favored by Moms everywhere). Several other websites were simply circulating the same dated articles. There seems to be little recent research, other than an interesting NY Times article about how microwaves could be used to kill potentially invasive organisms on ships that are carried to other ports affecting ecosystems.

Like many things, this also seems to depend on the source and who you trust. According to Consumer Product Safety Commission data via Consumer Reports, about 4,000 Americans incur injuries from microwave ovens every year, including burns and scalds—a risk I hadn’t even considered.

But what about radiation exposure? The killing of food nutrients? The latter was demystified by another NY Times article that refers to research done at Cornell University, which concluded that, “every cooking method can destroy vitamins and other nutrients in food. The factors that determine the extent are how long the food is cooked, how much liquid is used and the cooking temperature.” (Here’s where the raw foodies would chime in). The radiation question is more frightening. The FDA itself states that it isn’t entirely known what happens to people exposed over a period of time to low levels of microwaves and that long-term studies involving people have not been done. See some safety tips here.

There are also significant warnings out there for mothers regarding the lack of safety in heating milk in the microwave, and for those who understandably like the ease of pre-packaged meals with plastic coverings, which are also of questionable safety.

I’m increasingly thinking though about where my food comes from in addition to how healthful it is. In that spirit, a writer from Slow Food also gave me a good reminder. It’s about “knowing your food.” How easy is that to do when (although it’s been busted as a myth and I still do it) you’re supposed to stand five feet away from the oven? It’s certainly not stirring a pot with appreciation while taking in the aromas of the food.

Perhaps newer research doesn’t need to be done after Swiss, German and Russian studies concluded years ago of the microwave oven’s questionable safety. So for now, out it goes. I’m going to get myself a tea kettle and start looking into the hazards of electromagnetic fields which appear to be dangerous and not as easy to avoid as an appliance.

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