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.