Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Microwaves: safe, or sorry?

The New York Times science section, Science Times, this week reminds us not to believe all the scares we hear about, in its item The Claim: People Shouldn’t Stand Too Close to a Microwave:

Considering how long microwave ovens have been around, one would think that any concerns about their safety would have been resolved long ago. But many people continue to wonder whether standing next to a microwave while it’s on can expose them to radiation — and if so, how much.



Proximity to a microwave oven is not dangerous.

This and other myths about microwave ovens, cookware coatings, and other bits of household technology, are the sorts of things people seem to love to, um... stew about. It's easier to worry than to think, there's great temptation to say, “Well, but do they really know?”, and “Better safe than sorry!” is a simple escape.

But if we lived our lives that way, we'd never progress; we'd still be riding horses, tilling fields with oxen, and freezing our tootsies off in the winter. Some would say we'd be better off that way. I can't really argue with them, but it's not how I see it: I'd miss the Internet.

So let's get past some of the popular myths:

  • As the Times tells us, you won't be nastily irradiated by your microwave oven.
  • There's nothing wrong with putting plastic in the microwave — it won't make your food toxic, or at least not any more toxic than it already is. (Of course, you don't want to get the food so hot that it melts the plastic, but that's a different issue.)
  • Similarly, there's nothing wrong with reusing those plastic water bottles. They don't magically become toxic on reuse.
  • Non-stick cookware coatings are not toxic. They're inert and harmless, and, while flecks of them in your food are unappealing and are considered a culinary faux pas, it won't hurt you.
  • Your mobile phone won't give you brain cancer. It might drive you crazy, but, again, that's a different issue.

There are lots more, but that's a sampling. Many people are suspicious of technology, of government, of big business, and of medicine... yet are surprisingly not suspicious of any cockamamie rumour they hear, however implausible, that warns of an imagined danger or tells some “secret” that “they don't want you to know!”

Yes, the fact is that sometimes it does turn out that there's a serious problem with something we thought was safe — we've seen it from DES to Vioxx, and we'll see more in the future. But we never find out about these issues from junk mail, hushed rumours, and anti-medicine cranks. Reports of real problems do show up in real places, no matter how much “they” want to keep it quiet.

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