A Dark & Stormy Bite: Can A Microwave Nuke Your Nuts?

Explosive microwave injuries are the stuff of legend. Or are they?

Welcome, foolish mortals, to the home of cadaverous casseroles, exsanguinous eats, and snack-related sagas so strange and frightening they may well transport you to a realm unknown. Welcome, readers, to A Dark and Stormy Bite, a monthly column that dives deep into a teeth-chattering culinary dimension of utterly ghoulish proportions. Basically, if it involves food and goes bump in the night, we'll cover it here. Do you have a favorite haunted restaurant or cursed recipe? Email lstone@thetakeout.com—and beware.

Warning to readers: this one gets a tad gross, so if you don't want to hear a little bit about bodily injury to humans and animals, we'll see you next month.

All week long, our steadfast writers have celebrated the mysteries and miracles of the microwave via The Takeout's inaugural Microwave Week. But while you short-sighted daywalkers have reveled in hot corn, office salads, and chilaquiles, I've wandered the realm of the macabre, shrouded in a thick velvet cape, pretending my apartment is the basement of a cursed opera house, and exploring the most forbidden of queries: can a microwave explode your nut sack?

My quest was inspired by Urban Legend, the 1998 horror film that Jared Leto somehow doesn't remember making. I watched it a few weeks ago while I was working in the lab late one night (that is, eating Garden Salsa SunChips on my couch), and my eyes beheld an eerie sight: during one scene, the killer explodes a victim's dog in a frat house microwave. I watch a ton of horror flicks, but I think microwaving animals is the most disturbing horror movie plot device of all time—probably because of its resemblance to some ultra-gruesome true events. (I'm not going to link to those here. If you want more info, you can search for it yourself.)

Still, the scene got me thinking. It reminded me of the legend of the microwaved workman, which Snopes explains thusly:

"An unfortunate workman was installing a component and by some accident or other, the scanner was turned on. His body was found fully cooked. Other family members embellished by reporting that they had heard how the guy supposedly smelled delicious, causing many of the co-workers to either upchuck or become vegetarians."

My question was this: hypothetically, could a microwave burn, maim, or explode a human appendage if the aforementioned appendage was outside of the microwave? If you're standing close to a microwave—say, at crotch height—could some horrible malfunction allow heat and radiation to leak out of the microwave and scorch your genitals, potentially bursting your balls like a pair of frozen Costco cream puffs? Personal injury lawyers and holistic "health" bloggers all advertise the health benefits of living microwave-free, pointing to incidents of testicular injury as proof. And while actual gonad explosion seems far-fetched, I did wonder: why are people afraid of microwaves, and what do nuts have to do with it?

To find out, first I reached out to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), hoping they'd be able to explain the effects of microwave radiation. Turns out, the NRC doesn't deal in microwaves (or testicles). Instead, NRC representative Victor Dricks referred me to Harvard University, home of a respected radiation protection program. Unfortunately, I didn't hear back from Harvard, probably because they don't want to talk to a food blogger about genitals. And that's fair.

Unable to connect with a radiation expert, I approached a slew of nut sack experts. First up was primary care physician Dr. Jaydeep Tripathy, who explained that, yes, microwaves use radiation to heat your food—but it's non-ionizing radiation, which is also found in radio waves and (with the exception of UV light) isn't known to cause cancer. "Heating the food using a microwave does not transfer the [radiation], not that it's cancerous, because it's not," Tripathy told me over email. "The molecules vibrate at a speed and this causes the food to heat up." However, all that heat could, hypothetically, take a toll if you configured your microwave to operate with the door open. "Your eyes and testes are particularly vulnerable to it because [they have] little blood flow to carry all the heat away," Tripathy wrote.

Medical consultant Dr. Lizz Kinyua explained further: "Non-ionizing radiation means [the microwave] does not have the ability to remove electrons from an atom," Kinyua said. "[Microwaves] work by creating an electrical field within the oven, making the food particles such as amino acids and water molecules align. As they align, they start oscillating around their own axis, producing heat and energy, making food warm."

Here's where things get wild. Kinyua explained that, during heating, the microwave produces approximately five milliwatts of non-ionizing radiation per one square centimeter (5mW/cm squared). Most of that non-ionizing radiation is contained within the microwave. "However, a leakproof system is not always assured," Kinyua says. "Some microwaves are faulty, which could allow emission leakage." Since you may not be able to identify emission leakage right away, Kinyua recommends keeping the family jewels at least five centimeters away from your microwave while it's operating.

Leaks notwithstanding, how does that non-ionizing radiation stay inside the microwave? Microbiologist Alex Berezow filled me in. "That mesh screen in the window of the microwave acts as a Faraday cage—that is, it keeps all the microwaves inside the oven," Berezow says, explaining that a Faraday cage is an enclosure that essentially blocks electromagnetic radiation. "If that mesh screen ever gets damaged or torn, then the microwave could hurt you because the microwaves would no longer be confined inside the oven."

Okay, but how much radiation would it take to really do a number on the ol' snow globes? To find out, I checked out a radiation hazard analysis on one encyclopedic microwave blog, which explains that you wouldn't even start to feel heat unless the emission reached a level of 30 mW/cm2. As a reminder, microwaves produce approximately five milliwatts of non-ionizing radiation per one square centimeter, which is... less than 30. Hypothetically speaking, if your eyes were exposed to 100 mW/cm2, you could develop cataracts, but you wouldn't actually start to cook until emissions reached 5000 mW/cm2. All of this means that, to suffer real physical harm, you'd have to have an insanely powerful microwave as a result of, say, villainous tampering. Or a very handy ghost.

But while it may be near impossible to crank that thang high enough to destroy your Rocky Mountain oysters, there are, in fact, some detrimental effects of improper microwave usage on record. "Non-thermally, microwaves polarize food molecules which can create carcinogenic radicals," Kinyua says. "Combined with body enzymes, it can interfere with body functions and lead to the generation of oxygen radicals which cause cancer."

According to Kinyua, you'd need up to 10 years of frequent exposure to see those kinds of effects, but—BUT!—you'd likely see them in areas that Kinyua calls "most susceptible to radiation injury due to their high radiation absorption." And guess what's near the top of the list, just under cartilage, the skeleton, and the lymphatic system? Your pelvic organs, baby.

"Daily exposure to radiation and thermal heat leads to reduced sperm count and distorts sperm morphology," Kinyua told me, adding that the radiation can also hypothetically affect female hormones, as well as lead to ovarian and testicular cancers. If that sounds far-fetched, feel free to check out studies like this one, which examined the effects of non-ionizing radiation on the testicular tissues of rats. Spoiler: it wasn't good.

So, can you bust your giblets simply by standing next to your microwave? No, I don't think so. You can, however, suffer some detrimental health effects as outlined above. Fortunately, you're probably fine as long as you behave like a normal person and avoid shoving your crotch up against your microwave four times a day. But if you do somehow experience an incident of vile, monstrous, macabre microwave mayhem, you know where to find me.