Weird & Wireless: Do microwave ovens cause cancer?

Welcome to a new series of posts on Electro-ramblings concerning the wonderful but sometimes weird world of wireless comms, written by Joel Young, CTO of Digi International
Unfortunately, I’m not a cancer expert and I believe that there are things in this world that we may not think cause cancer that really do, and others which we believe cause cancer that really don’t. I also am very will willing to admit that I’ve always loved microwave ovens because they seem to magically create something out of nothing – or rather initiate changes in the name of heat.

This love of microwaves has the tendency to cause me to give the microwave the benefit of the doubt when some accuse it of being a harmful device.  

Nonetheless, I've found that when questioned, most people actually believe that microwave ovens do nasty things, similar to X-rays or Gamma-rays, and provide dangerous effects.

Unfortunately for those misguided individuals, even though microwave ovens heat through radiation instead of conduction or convection, because of where microwaves sit in the electromagnetic spectrum, their results are really very different.

Low frequency radiation

Remember, the nasty types of radiation are ultra high frequency, above visible light while microwaves, like their lower frequency brethren - radio, are below visible light.  The ultra-high frequency waves do bad things because they don't pass through living cells gracefully - rather they like to stop and stir things up a bit; cause a burn or some unnatural growth.

Of course, I know that most counter this with the thought that "microwave ovens" cook meat and food in some miraculous way - so exposure to them can't possibly be good. To this I like to respond that we all understand going sitting in a hot tub or going out on a hot day (staying in the shade), but that doesn't mean that we want to literally put ourselves in an oven at 400 degrees - everything in moderation.  

The other part to note is that microwaves, even at 1000 watts, don't actually cook anything. This is the perhaps the biggest misconception. Microwaves at a frequency of 2450 MHz and 1000 watts sole purpose is to literally get water molecules excited.  

Excited water molecules bump into each other a lot and get hot. This heat is conducted to everything those water molecules touch, be it a plate, some flour or a hot dog.  In this way I would argue that they may be safer than a hot stove. For if there is no water, then microwaves really don't do much.


Finally, the last part is that microwave ovens are shielded in a big way. I wouldn't recommend anyone zap another living thing with 1,000 watts since we all tend to water inside us that would get excited.  For this reason your 1,000 watt microwave won't work with the door open, and with the door closed is limited to 2 milliwatts of leakage, much less than your home WiFi network.

Previous Weird & Wireless posts include:

* Weird & Wireless: Why can I use a 2.4-GHz phone and 802.11 network at the same time?

joel-young-2009-150x150.jpgJoel Young, VP of Research and Development and CTO at Digi International, has more than 22 years of experience in developing and managing data and voice communications. He joined Digi International in June 2000 and in his current role he is responsible for research and development of all of Digi's core products.

Prior to joining Digi, Joel was VP of Sales & Marketing at Transcrypt International where he was responsible for sales, marketing, and product development for all information security products. During his tenure at Transcrypt, he also served as VP of Product Development and VP of Engineering where he was responsible for engineering, research and product development for wireless communications products, cellular telephony, wireline telephony and land mobile radio, data security and specialized digital radio products.

He also served as District Manager for AT&T Business Communications Services where he was responsible for the creation and implementation of voice processing and network database strategies, including deploying new voice processing platforms into the AT&T switched network for private network and other outbound calling services.

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