The informant is a 20-year-old college student. All of the informant’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from South Korea, but both of her parents have lived in the United States their whole lives.
While I was heating up some leftover pasta in the microwave, the informant commented on the fact that I was standing too close to the microwave while it was running. I told her that I’d never heard of this being a bad thing to do, and she replied that her mother has always told her to stand far away from it, or else she will develop a chronic illness and die young. A second woman who was in the room confirmed that her mother has always told her the same thing. The second woman also has a South Korean mother whose parents were immigrants born and raised in South Korea.
While I had never heard of this belief before, I do not doubt that there is some truth to the idea that prolonged or continuous exposure to microwaves can create a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses like cancer. However, the risk is most likely rather minimal, considering that microwaves are lined with material that prevents radiation from leaking and affecting anyone in close proximity. It is interesting that both of the individuals who held this belief are of South Korean descent, which may highlight a prominent difference between Eastern and Western views on health and medicine. I asked the informant whether her mother had a specific viewpoint on keeping cell phones in close proximity to one’s body, since they are known to emit radiation similarly to microwave ovens, and the informant replied that her mother did not. This seems, then, to be a belief isolated to microwave ovens as cooking appliances, and may also reflect a more traditional viewpoint on food handling and preparation.
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“Something else my dad told me was that when you heat up food in the microwave, you can’t stand in front of it or you’ll get cancer. But I used to really like processed food, so I would always use the microwave and I would be really hungry so I’d stand in front of it and wait and he would get mad.”
The health belief that microwave radiation will induce cancer is something that I’ve heard before. I have also heard this belief applied to the tera-hertz radiation used in TSA body scanners. Many of my relatives from Taiwan have also mentioned this health belief about radiation in general.
As mankind has entered the nuclear era, harnessing the intramolecular forces for energy and weaponry, radiation has become a very real threat. Radiation often dominates our news and our history. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Hiroshima have left very strong impressions on the global consciousness. This fear is perhaps intensified by the fact that radiation is an invisible force that none of us are capable of perceiving. We do not know when we are subjected to it and most of us do not understand the complexities of its various forms. So we’ve simply learned to fear the word “radiation”, associating it with all of the nuclear tragedies that has befallen mankind.
However, this fear of microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation is unfounded. Microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation are very different from the radiation that nuclear meltdowns produce. I once held the belief that microwaves could induce cancer. A physicist I worked with in high school told me that while high concentrations of microwave radiation might cook a human being from inside out, microwave radiation simple does not carry enough energy to do the genetic damage to induce cancer. The same applies to tera-hertz radiation.
Vecchia, Paolo. “Perception of Risks from Electromagnetic Fields: Lessons for the Future.” Journal of Biological Physics 29.2-3 (2003): 269-274.