The Ubiquitous Microwave Oven: Convenient but Potentially Dangerous

by Bruce Montgomery Ph.D. April 30, 2017

The Ubiquitous Microwave Oven: Convenient but Potentially Dangerous

 

I use a microwave oven several times a day.

The convenience of a microwave oven is alluring. I primarily use mine to re-heat food, and I love the steamer bags for vegetables. In fact, I eat more vegetables more often because of this wonderful way to steam fresh or frozen vegetables in just a few minutes. I can have perfectly cooked vegetables without the oils and without the cleanup.

Use Rates and Injury Statistics

In 2011, about 97% of the housing units in the U.S. had a microwave oven (Williams, et al, 2012). Although virtually everyone has one, not everyone knows how to use them properly or takes the proper precautions – especially children.

Per the article Microwave oven-related injuries treated in hospital EDs in the United States, 1990 to 2010 by Thambiraj DF1, Chounthirath T, Smith GA Am J Emerg Med. 2013 Apr 18, an estimated 155,959 individuals with microwave oven-related injuries were treated in US hospitals from 1990 through 2010. This equals an average of 21 individuals per day. 60.7% were female; 63.3% were adults (≥18 years). Nearly two of five injuries were to children. During the 21-year study period, the number and rate of microwave oven-related injuries increased significantly. The most common mechanism of injury was a spill (31.3%), and the most common body region injured was the hand and fingers (32.4%). Patients younger than 18 years were more likely to sustain an injury to their head and neck than adults.

The authors concluded that “Microwave ovens are an important source of injury in the home in the United States. The large increases in the number and rate of these injuries underscore the need for increased prevention efforts, especially among young children.”

FDA Regulations

First regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1971, microwave oven manufacturers must certify their products meet safety performance standards created and enforced by the FDA to protect the public health. According to the FDA’s 5 Tips for Using Your Microwave Oven Safely, microwave ovens are generally safe when used correctly. But as the FDA notes, people have experienced burns (see above), and in rare cases, other injuries from microwave radiation, particularly in cases involving improper use or maintenance.

The FDA further explains that most injuries are the result of heat-related burns from hot containers, overheated foods, or exploding liquids. Except in very rare instances, most injuries are not related to radiation.

FDA regulations require that microwave ovens are designed to prevent high-level radiation leaks. Manufacturers must certify that their microwave ovens comply with specific FDA safety standards. These standards require any radiation given off by ovens to be well below the level known to cause injury.

FDA Safety Tips

  1. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for use. For instance, you should not use some microwave ovens when they are empty. In addition, you should not heat water or liquids longer than the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations.
  2. Use microwave-safe containers. Use cookware specially manufactured for use in the microwave oven. Do not use metal pans or aluminum foil. The FDA recommends using glass, ceramic, and plastic containers labeled for microwave oven use.
  3. Avoid super-heated water. “Super-heated” means water is heated beyond its boiling temperature, without signs of boiling. If you use a microwave oven to heat water in a clean cup beyond the boiling temperature, a slight disturbance or movement may cause the water to violently explode out of the cup.
  4. Check for leakage. There should be little cause for concern about excess microwave radiation leaking from these ovens unless the door hinges, latch, or seals are damaged. The FDA recommends looking at your oven carefully to see if any of these issues exist. The agency also recommends that you do not use an oven if the door doesn’t close firmly or is bent, warped, or otherwise damaged.
  5. Don’t use ovens that seem to operate when the door is open. The FDA monitors these appliances for radiation safety issues and has received increasing reports about microwave ovens that appear to stay on—and operate—when the door is open. The FDA recommends that you immediately stop using a microwave oven if this happens.

Cooking Foods Properly in Microwave Ovens

As for ensuring that your food is properly cooked or liquids are safely heated in a microwave oven, check out the United States Department of Agriculture’s article called Microwave Ovens and Food Safety.

The Unmentioned Dangers of Microwave Ovens

Safely operating your microwave oven and cooking foods properly in them are clearly described by the FDA and USDA. Another important danger associated with microwave ovens are their placement.

I have discussed proper placement of microwave ovens in previous blogs, so please excuse the redundancy. But locating your microwave oven at the right height and using hot pads can help prevent possible scalding from hot foods – the number one cause of microwave injuries.

The objective of a microwave oven is to heat food and liquids. We want our cooked food or cup of coffee or tea to be hot. But if they spill, they can scald our delicate skin. So here are a few other tips to prevent scalding from food and liquids prepared in a microwave.

  1. Place your microwave below shoulder height. Do not install microwaves above the oven. This requires you to reach awkwardly and change hand positions while removing hot food and liquids from the oven. Instead, place your microwave oven at countertop level. This allows for safer transfer from oven to countertop.
  2. Ensure that there is adequate countertop space to place hot food and liquids in front of the microwave oven or to the side where the door opens – not the hinge side.
  3. Use hot pads that allow you to grip the container. The food or liquid are hot, so your container will be hot. Remember that hands and fingers are the body parts most often damaged in microwave oven accidents.

Our Advice

Follow the FDA and USDA tips for safe cooking with microwave ovens. Place your microwave oven in a safe and convenient location. And monitor your children’s use of them. Now that we virtually all have microwave ovens – let’s put them in the proper location and use them more safely.

 

 




Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.
Bruce Montgomery Ph.D.

Author

Dr. Bruce Montgomery is a licensed building contractor in Michigan and Florida. He is a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist as designated by the National Association of Home Builders. He has also achieved an Executive Certificate in Home Modification from the University of Southern California. He has a wide ranging educational background, including a Master of Science degree in Entomology, with a Master of Science degree in Forestry and a Ph.D. in educational administration.