Are Microwaves Safe?

They’re everywhere, they’re used everyday, but are they safe?

While general microwave safety has yet to be resolved definitively, there seems to be growing consensus that microwaving in plastic poses dangers.  The problem is that chemicals in some plastics–Phthalates and BPA, for example–can leach into food when cooked or reheated in the microwave.  The potential for leaching with these types of plastics is increased

  • with longer cooking times,
  • with containers that are old, cracked and have been washed hundreds of times (like most of the containers we own!), and
  • when the reheated food is heavy in cream and butter, since fatty foods absorb more harmful chemicals.*

The Immediate Bottom Line  Microwave in glass, not plastic.  While perhaps some plastics don’t contain “leachable” chemicals, it’s difficult to know for sure.  And how do you know if your plastic containers have reached the “old and worn” threshold?  With potential dangers that include hormone imbalances, birth defects and developmental delays for children, why not just avoid the issue and heat in glass?

Don’t Stop, Strategize  The problem, of course, is time.  As always, modern technology presents us with a choice between worrisome health aspects  and time-saving convenience.  Except that it doesn’t have to be an either/or choice.  Instead of stopping and giving up, strategize and discover the multiple options that are out there:

  • I began by simply transferring my leftovers to microwave safe plates or bowls before reheating.  This is a good option for the workplace, too.  Transport your lunch in tight-seal plastic containers, but store a couple dishes at the worksite for reheating (or convince the office manager to invest in a small set for everyone’s use.)
  • Second, I gradually acquired a collection of glass storage containers.  Pyrex and Corningware (on the left) have fairly good rubber seals (remove and cover with a glass plate when reheating.)  They can be found everywhere at very reasonable prices.  Great vintage sets can be found at estate sales.  Crate and Barrel dishes (on the left) are nice enough to use as serving dishes.  All double as handy baking dishes.  Look for square containers to maximize storage space in the frig.

  • Next, when stashing leftovers, I gradually got in the habit of reaching for glass containers.  (It helps that they are located right next to the stove.)  I now use plastic containers only when I need that airtight seal for transporting foods or storing cut vegetables.
  • Finally, addressing the general issue of whether it’s safe to microwave at all, I’m gradually decreasing my reliance on this appliance, reserving it for just those times when I really need it.  Very often, when I make a big dish to enjoy for two meals, I’ll save the leftovers in the same pan and then reheat it in that very pan, as shown below, where I’m heating up greens and beans cooked the previous day to make a breakfast scramble.

The Bigger Issue  No one really knows whether a particular technology is safe.  Basically, we are modern science’s guinea pigs.  From nanoparticles and GMOs to neonicotinoids, irradiation and “natural” flavors made in test tubes, new technological “break-throughs” roll off the line continually.  None are tested for the many years that are required to determine whether small effects add up to big consequences.  Nor are they tested in combination with each other to see how small effects react with small effects from other technological advances.

Rolf Halden, director for the Center for Environmental Security at the Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute puts it this way:

“We don’t know if and how many people die from plastic exposure. . . But we do know that in the developed world we suffer from a lot of diseases–breast cancer, obesity and early onset puberty–that are less prevalent in developing countries.  These are a result of our lifestyle.  From a public health perspective,” he adds, “we should consider heated plastic an unnecessary source of exposure to harmful elements and eliminate it.”

That’s the approach I’m taking for all things related to whiz bang technology–minimize as much as possible.

*  Above information and quote based on “Burning Question:  Is It OK to Heat Food in Plastic?” The Wall Street Journal, April 23, 2013, p. D4

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