In today’s age of instant gratification, microwave ovens are a staple of household kitchens. They are a convenient way to boil water, melt chocolate and warm food. But they also make many users uneasy about the dangers to which they may be exposing themselves and their food. The phrase “microwave radiation” is itself ominous, suggestive of skin damage and disease. Available studies on this topic indicate that these fears are not unfounded, but are somewhat misplaced. Research indicates that while microwave ovens are probably harmless, microwave radiation itself can cause considerable genetic damage.
Microwaves are non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation, a form of energy like light or radio waves, with a wavelength between one meter and one millimeter. They are used in communications, TVs, and, of course, to heat up food. Microwaves are useful for the transmission of information because of their ability to penetrate haze, light rain and snow, clouds, and smoke. However, this ability to penetrate through barriers poses a threat to cells and the genetic information they store.
Human tissue studies have shown that a variety of chromosomal aberrations can result from exposure to microwave radiation. Various experiments have observed that following treatment with radiation, chromosome aberration frequency is significantly higher than in the control samples. Dicentric (having two centromeres) and ring chromosomes were observed, as well as chromatin condensation, cell membrane damage and micronuclei. Micronuclei in particular are considered a positive indicator of genotoxicity. These results indicate that microwaves cause genetic mutations in human somatic cells.
Fortunately, the method in which microwave ovens are constructed prevents exposure to mutagenic radiation. Through the use of various mechanisms and materials, the microwaves are contained within the large chamber in which food is placed. The oven door is lined with a metal plate to reflect the waves and ensure this. Furthermore, federal regulations require all ovens to have two independent, interlocking switches to stop the production of microwaves the moment the latch is released or the door is opened. In this way, the greatest danger posed by microwave oven use is the high incidence of burns.
Even though microwave ovens are not all that dangerous, mobile phones represent a very common source of microwave exposure. A series of experiments done with phones indicate that they may pose a serious health risk. Various studies have observed statistically significant incidences of micronuclei, changes in cell shape, chromosomal damage, chromatin condensation, destructions of organelles and nuclear structures, loss of mitochondrial cristae which are crucial for ATP production, cytoplasmic lysis and an increase in sister chromatid exchange frequency. Interestingly, pre-treatment with ginkgo biloba, a plant derivative usually used to treat Alzheimer’s and dementia, significantly increased cell viability after radiation exposure.
It is clear that microwave radiation has the potential to be genotoxic and to pose severe health risks, including chromosomal and organelle damage. This is especially true for smokers, who are more susceptible to radiation’s mutagenicity, and for radar facility workers who are exposed to radiation as an occupational hazard. It appears that microwave ovens are safely regulated by federal law; however, the thoroughness of this legislation has been questioned. Furthermore, findings related to standard mobile phones have been particularly alarming. Thus, microwave radiation is an issue that requires further study, especially with regard to alternative, and increasingly common, methods of exposure.