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Sunday Challenge: Is My Microwave Killing Me?

My Twitter status:

rebeccawatson can’t use the microwave at the same time as the Internet. I’m practically Amish.

From chat:

Joshua: I’m going to take a moment to mock your techno-suffering.
BWahahahahahahaha.
me: my suffering only lasts 30 seconds to 5 min., so….
Joshua: It’s somewhat troublesome, though.
I’m guessing that your WiFi signal is getting knocked out when you run it?
me: I guess so
Joshua: That shouldn’t happen. WiFi and microwaves use the same frequency of EM radiation, but the shielding in your microwave should prevent it from getting out and interfering with your WiFi.
How old is it?
me: um, 20 years or so.
am I going to get cancer?
Joshua: Probably.
me: :(
Joshua: I mean, I’m not actually joking. A leaking microwave is not a good thing.
You should get it replaced. Or at least stand really far away when you run it.
me: hm. ok.

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Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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37 Comments

  1. I’ve had a similar problem in my previous apartment, where my PC was less than three feet away from the microwave. I solved it by trying out different channels for the WiFi and I found one that the microwave didn’t interfere with. You may want to try that for the time being.

  2. I don’t know about cancer (are microwaves the right wavelength to cause DNA mutations?), but I’d still stay away from a leaking microwave lest flesh becomes partially cooked.

    Although I’m not sure if your microwave is leaking at dangerous levels; from what I’ve heard, many normally shielded microwave ovens do cause WiFi interference, so I guess the manufacturers only shield microwaves to levels safe to humans, but not safe for WiFi signals. You might want to change the WiFi channel of your access point if this is the case.

  3. If you want to make an experiment take a CDR and place it by the microwave. Set the microwave to about 10 seconds. If the microwave is properly shielded nothing should happen. Although I cannot imagine Microwave waves interfearing with the WiFi waves. I would suspect more that the Microwave is drawing to much power and your router or modem isn’t getting enough.

    If not:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1Wegnjmd-8
    I sort of ignored the do not try this at home part of the video.

  4. It’s probably the combination of your WiFi router and the microwave. I had an older Netgear that would die if anyone used either of the microwaves in the house, and this in a fairly large house. That same Netgear didn’t get affected at all by a third microwave I had at college. My current Linksys seems to be immune to all microwaves, but the ones they’re selling right now are garbage.

    Translation: try another channel (use 1, 6, or 11, the rest are overlapping) and if that doesn’t work replace your router.

  5. Microwaves are non-ionizing radiation. So it looks like you’re safe from Cancer.

    Now you don’t wanna cook yerself, so keep the door closed when cooking.

    Try different channels on your router as Cellarmation says.

    …Or do your cooking on the stove.

  6. Will it give you cancer? Probably not. Like others have said, it’s non-ionizing radiation, so it won’t mutate your DNA or anything like that. At least, it shouldn’t.

    Is a leaking microwave safe? No. So, your body will absorb the microwave energy and heat up, just like your food. Depending upon how much is leaking, this might be harmless or it might actually start cooking you. Being cooked is probably not too healthy. For an extreme case, read about the radar operators who stood in front of the microwave dishes during winter to keep warm. Most went blind, others had organ failure due to their organs being cooked. Not pleasant. I doubt that’ll happen to you any time soon, but it’s probably best to replace it. They’re not that expensive. If you can’t afford it though, I’d be willing to pitch some money to a “Keep Rebecca From Being Cooked” fund.

  7. Thanks for all the info! I’m relieved to know that I have a better chance of steaming my spleen than cancering my cranium.

    I’m not sure how much I can do with the wifi — it’s a public wifi network that I just plug into. So, a new microwave will probably have to do the trick. I’ve had this one for a really, really long time. The display hasn’t worked in five years, so I just have to guess at how long my burrito has been in there.

    Plus, I haven’t cleaned it in a long time. Ditching it for a new one will save me some effort.

    Thanks for the funding offer, kakos, but my only real trouble is getting the thing to my apartment. I was at the store today picking up boxes, and couldn’t quite figure out how to strap one to my bike.

  8. The leakage is probably from around the door. You can probably increase the shielding pretty easily by adding aluminum foil that overlaps the joints. The wavelength of microwave radiation is pretty long, so it gets attenuated a lot when it tries to propagate through a wave guide a lot smaller than it is.

    The reason the radar operators went blind was due to thermal effects. The lens of the eye doesn’t have any blood vessels in it, so the only way it can lose heat is via conduction, but it is a very poor conductor of heat. It would take a lot of exposure for your eyes to heat up so much that the proteins denature.

    The amount of power it would take to screw-up the WiFi signal is small.

  9. Rebecca if you want to take Kakos up on the offer setup an Amazon wishlist with a microwave you want. That way someone here can buy it for you and it will be shipped to your house without putting your address online with the fanboys.

  10. my only real trouble is getting the thing to my apartment. I was at the store today picking up boxes, and couldn’t quite figure out how to strap one to my bike.

    Rebecca – I bet you could convince Mr. Masala Skeptic to drive you to the store next weekend when he’s in town visiting. He’s also good at getting stuff off high shelves…

  11. Now let’s not jump to conclusions. Cancer isn’t the only outcome.

    Microwaves may also give you superpowers. So embrace it, and you’ll be jumping from rooftops wearing spandex in no time!

  12. I thought skeptics were supposed to evaluate ideas critically rather than accepting whatever myth went past?

    There’s a popular idea that microwaves cause cancer, probably because of the word “radiation”, but there is no known mechanism, and the evidence seems to argue against it. (You should of course look this up rather than take my word for it.)

    Here is a chance to actually be skeptical, rather than simply defending a different set of ideas from the crystal-worshippers and faith healers.

    As for interfering with Wi-Fi, on the one hand they are in the same frequency band, but on the other the microwave is shielded and the Wi-Fi protocol is designed to resist this kind of interference (specifically it uses OFDM and error-correcting codes). Still, when the microwave is 800 W and the Wi-Fi transmitter is 100 mW, there’s only so much you can do.

  13. Anonyme…It’s not the use of the Microwave that may cause the cancer (ie the BS about it causing carcinogens in food) it’s the fact that several people have said that it may in fact not be shielded properly. Now I think it’s reasonable for Rebecca to ask about Cancer when she may be baked with Microwave radiation from a microwave that isn’t properly shielded.

    As for the interference, I have been thinking about it and it may just be the EM radiation that is given off by the microwave when it is in use that is causing this, but electricity is outside my specialty so, I cannot say anything for sure.

  14. Protesilaus, no, it’s not reasonable to worry about cancer from the microwave’s emissions. This is a popular misconception, based on the idea that since microwaves are a form of radiation, they must be able to cause cancer. “Skeptical thinking at its finest”, it seems to me, would have paused to look up whether cancer due to microwaves is actually an appreciable risk, evaluated the arguments on both sides, and come to a conclusion based on evidence.

  15. Sorry, Anonyme, but you’re way off base. We value critical thinking here, which occasionally means asking people to offer their expertise. We also value fun and goofiness, which occasionally means a humorous post about killer microwaves. Never did I say that microwaves cause cancer, and the posts in this thread make it clear that the chances are greater that my insides would get cooked.

    Critical thinking sometimes begins with critical reading.

  16. I’m inclined to believe that it’s the power fluctuations that are causing the problems. Our wiring sucks, which I hope the landlord can fix soon, and starting the dryer causes the computer to crash.

    However . . .20 YEARS . . omg, girl. Get a new microwave. That’s older, barely, than my youngest kid. :D

  17. Ok, so it turns out the microwave won’t come on with the door open. And I’m too big to fit entirely inside it. I’ll have to figure something else out because I want to be able to shoot laserbeams from my eyes dammit!

  18. Rebecca, well, it’s your blog. You just hit on a kind of woo that particularly annoys me. Sorry if I came off as rude…

    Anonyme, it didn’t (just) come out as rude, it came out as wrong, and that’s the important thing. And you’re not wrong because it’s my blog, you’re wrong because you didn’t take the time to understand the title of the post (a question to encourage people to think about a problem), the content of the post (describing the problem), or any of the responses (using critical thinking to address the problem). Your comment came out of nowhere and faulted someone (?) for uncritically accepting that microwaves cause cancer, when not a single person did that.

    Passion is good, so long as it’s focused in the correct direction.

  19. Besides, microwaves *do* cause cancer. My aunt spent the last 20 years of her life cooking with one in her tiny kitchen before she died of lung cancer. What are the odds against that being a coincidence? I suppose her lead poisoning came from stirring her coffee with a pencil? You people sicken me.

    She had super powers, too. She could see through complex conspiracies, whether they were started by Commies/Democrats, gays, Jews, African-Americans, or “science people.”

  20. This happens with my brand new Panasonic microwave. One solution is to buy an 802.11n router, which can operate not only at 2.4Ghz but at 5.8Ghz. You can set it for the higher frequency, and there’s much less interference there.

    Here’s an article where a guy did some non-scientific tests with his microwave and wireless access point.

    http://www.wi-fiplanet.com/tutorials/article.php/3116531

    BTW, changing the channel on my router did nothing to eliminate the microwave dropouts. :(

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