Public Health Mythbusters:Do everyday appliances increase our risk for cancer?

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September 9, 2013

Researched and written by Nisha Puntambekar and Andrea Vaught

This is the second round of our Public Health Mythbusters series where we address another major health concern that has been appearing more frequently in the news: cancer risks associated with common household items. We have all read the articles about microwaves and cell phone usage increasing our cancer risk.

But are these claims of adverse health effects true? Is there really an increased risk of disease from our use of these appliances? Do we need to avoid these essential technologies just to keep ourselves and our families safe? Don’t ditch your microwave oven just yet! Here is what we found out…

Do microwaves increase my risk for cancer? In order to understand the possible risks of microwaves, it is important to understand how a microwave actually works in heating up our food. A microwave oven produces radiation that agitates water molecules in the food. These molecules vibrate and produce friction, which in turn, heats the food from the inside out, rather than other methods of heating food, such as grilling or baking, which heat foods from the outside in.

Microwaving is a quick and efficient way of heating foods, and if used properly, microwaves are safe and do not elicit any harmful effects on human health, and do not make food radioactive.

Many people believe that by microwaving certain foods, the item becomes radioactive—this is a myth! Microwave ovens use low frequency non-ionizing radiation to heat food, which does not produce enough energy to alter the chemical composition of the cells comprising the food item. It is important to note that there are some negative health effects produced from microwaving. Cooking foods in the microwave can lead to a decrease in the nutritional value of certain foods such as fruits and vegetables. Unless you eat these types of food raw, however, there is some nutrition lost through the cooking process anyway—even through grilling, frying, and steaming.

And what about the worry of radiation leakage from microwave ovens? This is another myth involving the link between the actual microwave oven itself and its ability to produce waves capable of generating cancerous cells inside the human body. A few studies have shown that there may be a link between the use of the microwave oven and one’s proximity to it due to the fact that these appliances produce an electromagnetic field while in use. However, most experts agree that microwave ovens do not produce enough of this energy, and most people use them for short periods of time, so it is almost impossible for the microwave oven to directly increase one’s susceptibility to cancer. In addition, all microwave ovens are surrounded by a protective screen and insulated exterior in order to minimize their impact on the external environment.

On the other hand, there are other researchers who claim that because direct contact with microwave radiation (e.g. ionizing radiation caused by the sun’s UV rays) causes health issues, then contact with microwave ovens may render similar health risks. But again, there is no scientific evidence to back the claim that these ovens directly contribute to ill health effects. Evidence to support these claims is still lacking, and microwaves still remain a practical appliance in many households around the world.

If you are really curious about testing the effectiveness of your microwave’s protective shield, an inexpensive and non-scientific method of testing is to employ the “cell phone test.” Place a cell phone inside your microwave, but DO NOT turn on the microwave. I repeat, DO NOT TURN ON THE MICROWAVE while your cell phone is in it.  Call the cell phone number. If you hear the phone ringing inside the microwave, then you may have a leak in the gasket. If you do not hear the ringing, then it is safe to assume that your microwave is operating properly and safely. The reason this test works is because microwaves and wireless cellular networks operate on similar electromagnetic frequencies. Of course, if your microwave oven is from pre-1980, or if you are truly concerned about radiation leaks, you should use a leakage meter to officially determine its safety.

And speaking of cell phones… Another worry that people face is the possible link between cancer risk and cell phone use. In today’s highly connected population, people rely on cell phones more and more for communication and information. Similar to microwave ovens, cell phones emit small amounts of non-ionizing magnetic radiation, which can sometimes be absorbed by cells and tissues closest to the phone.

Thus far, research studies have been inconclusive in linking cell phone use to cancer, primarily because of the many variables that can affect outcomes—exposure to this radiation depends on the technology of the phone itself and how often the phone is used. Other variables include the age at which cell phones were first utilized by the user (which is quickly becoming the norm among younger users and can have long term affects), the average length of phone calls, and the number of phone calls made per day. It is difficult to gauge the effects of this technology because long-term studies have yet to be conducted; the upsurge in this technology has truly occurred only in the past decade.

There have been several studies, including some longitudinal studies conducted in Europe, that have examined the effects of cell phone use on health, but most of them do not present conclusive evidence. In fact, most of the current literature claims that evidence of radiofrequency radiation as being carcinogenic is negligible at best. Therefore, our second myth is busted!

There are several steps to take to keep you and your family safe and eating healthy. As we mentioned earlier, microwave ovens have not demonstrated any negative health effects on your body or on your food. However, it is important to maintain the nutritional quality of your food, particularly when you use the microwave to quick steam or heat fresh produce, such as vegetables. When using the microwave oven to cook your foods, it is important to use a minimal amount of water, and do not overcook your foods to maintain maximum nutritional value. In addition, it is absolutely necessary to ensure that your microwave is up-to-date, is not faulty and is used and installed properly.

With regards to cell phone use, until further studies are conducted, there is no way of knowing whether or not cell phones are linked to increased cancer risk. For children who are beginning to use cell phones earlier and earlier in age, it might be wise to limit their cell phone usage until future studies conclusively disprove the link between length and frequency of cell phone use to cancer risk.

If anything, limiting your family’s use and dependence on technology also has indirect health benefits—encourage your children to get outside and play, encourage other family members to exercise and socialize. It can work wonders to disconnect from the technology and reconnect with each other!

For more resources on these topics, and to see where we turned for my information, please visit the links below for: Radiation, Microwaves and Cancer from the UK Cancer Research site, Cell Phones and Cancer Risk, Why and How Microwave Cooking Causes Cancer, and How Do Microwaves Work?

Also, if you are worried about the safety of plastic use and microwave ovens, please check out our previous mythbusters post on the topic, located here at LDCC.

Nisha Puntambekar is a Research Associate and Andrea Vaught is a Research Assistant, working with Dr. Rebecca Katz at The George Washington University, Department of Health Policy

September 9, 2013