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What are Microwaves?

Arthur Hubbard Ph.D.

Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, as are X-rays, gamma rays, ultraviolet, visible light, radio waves and radar. Electromagnetic radiation is an electric and magnetic disturbance, a wave that transports energy from a source to a receiver without the actual transfer of material. Wave motion occurs on the surface of the ocean, and the energy of the waves is readily apparent, as are their wavelength and frequency. The wavelength of a microwave is about 15 centimeters [6 inches]. Microwaves have high frequencies, about 1 gigahertz [1 billion cycles per second] or more and happen to be strongly absorbed by the human body and by moist foods.

A commercial application of microwaves is the “microwave oven” in which food is placed in an electromagnetically shielded microwave chamber and allowed to absorb microwaves generated by a powerful electronic circuit. Microwaves are absorbed by moist foods because the oven frequency is similar to the rotational frequency of water molecules [about 2.4 gigahertz]. This “microwave excitation” causes water molecules in the food to suddenly become super-heated. Heat rapidly transfers from the super-heated molecules to the surrounding food. The excitation process is not perfectly specific to water, such that other molecules are also excited to some extent. Shielding of a microwave oven is sometimes less than perfect, allowing microwaves to stray into the surrounding spaces. Not all of the microwaves are absorbed by the food, but all of them must go somewhere, and some of them stray into the building via the electrical wiring.

The human body, including the brain and other vital organs, averages about 70% water, and thus the body is a strong absorber of microwave radiation. The health impact of microwave radiation absorbed by the body is a complicated issue that needs much further study, particularly the practical question as to the long-term effect of microwave exposure on the health and behavior of people of widely varying ages and states of health, including unborn fetuses.

Foods are complex substances from a scientific standpoint, and the impact of microwave excitation of foods on health and nutrition needs much further study. There have been reports of experiments in which frozen food warmed in a microwave oven was found to have undergone unhealthful changes, and food prepared in a microwave oven produced various symptoms of illness in volunteers who ate the food.

Another commercial device that presently employs microwave radiation is the cellular telephone system in which microwave radiation is transmitted and received by handheld units, “cell phones,” and by a network of powerful transmitters that now dot the globe. Other, safer, frequencies could have been used, but microwave frequencies were chosen for business reasons. Unlike the microwave oven, which attempts to confine its radiation within a shielded chamber, the cellular telephone system broadcasts its radiation everywhere. The world is its oven! The microwave frequencies employed by cell phone networks are in the range from about 0.8 to 2.1 gigahertz and thus are absorbed by the human body as are the frequencies used in microwave ovens. Although the microwave power [energy per unit time] is somewhat smaller for a cell phone than for a microwave oven, the cell phone broadcasts its radiation directly and unhindered into the brain and body of the user and anyone else nearby. Also, the neighborhood transmitter towers broadcast microwave radiation throughout their surroundings at power levels that are typically quite large. People living or working near a functioning transmitter tower are continuously exposed to microwave radiation.

Exposure to radiation as a result of cell phone use can induce “microwave sickness” the list of symptoms of which is “as long as your arm”. Some of the symptoms include inflammation of eyes, ears, nose, mouth and throat, headaches, earaches, insomnia, dizziness, and various mental or neurological disorders. Increased incidence of certain cancers has been reported among cell phone users.

Clearly, caution regarding cell phones and microwave ovens is in the best interest of each individual and of our civilization. What can one do to protect oneself and one’s family? Cell phone use should be limited to genuine emergencies. Microwave ovens, and the food establishments that use them, should be avoided. If cell phone use is mandatory, care should be taken to select a cell phone unit for which the radiation level is as low as possible. Radiation typically decreases as the square of distance from the source, that is, by a factor of one hundred for every ten-fold increase in distance from the source; thus, one should try to keep as far away as possible from radiation sources. Microwaves are absorbed rather efficiently by electrical wiring, resulting in the spread of the undesired signal throughout the building and neighborhood. Meters for measuring microwave radiation intensity levels in units of milli-watts of power per square centimeter of area are available with which to check for relatively strong signals, such as from a cell phone during a call, or from an oven due to imperfect shielding; warning beepers that are sensitive to moderately low intensity levels [micro-watts per sq. cm.] are also available [http://www.LESSEMF.com].


“Microwaving Our Planet: the Environmental Impact of the Wireless Revolution”
By Arthur Firstenberg, The Cellular Phone Task Force,
P.O. Box 1337, Mendocino, CA 95460, USA

“Your Community Guide to Cellular Phone Towers,”
Communications Workers of America,
AFL-CIO, 501 Third Street, NW, Washington,
DC 20001-2797, USA

Questions? Contact:
Lapis Lazuli Light, P.O. Box 42530, Santa Barbara
CA 93140-2530, USA