Everyone’s thought about it at least once: What is being microwaved like? What happens to your body if you’re microwaved? The answer, unsurprisingly, is gruesome, but it’s also complicated. Being microwaved like a Hot Pocket? Yeah, that’s pretty awful. You would be cooked alive (but not from the inside out). But low-level microwave radiation? That could actually someday keep you warm in the winter, believe it or not, if society could ever get behind the idea.
The awful, ugly truth is that we know what being microwaved would be like because people have put infants in microwaves. It actually happens. But science also allows us to guess at what would happen, theoretically, if walk-in microwave ovens ever became a thing for murderers to murder people with (spoiler: it’s unpleasant). Read on to learn what, exactly, would happen if you were microwaved (even just a little bit!).
Your Hands and Feet Could Get Burned Off
A one-month-old girl named Tracy Raynes was allegedly placed in a microwave oven in Caledonia, MI, in 1982. The mother was accused of the crime but denied it. This infant lived, but the third-degree radiation burns “necessitated partial amputation of the left hand and right foot and removal of part of the abdomen,” according to The Straight Dope.
The mother, because there was no evidence she actually put the baby in the microwave, was charged with negligence for failing to provide “necessary food, clothing or shelter, to wit: protection from microwave radiation.” WTF. The mother claims she was warming milk in the microwave, left for a sec, and came back to find her baby burned. Experts, however, found nothing wrong with the oven and said the burns were definitely from radiation.
Your Eyes Might Explode
Imagine: your body is a Hot Pocket and your eyes are gooey pockets of cheese. Now imagine stepping into a walk-in microwave oven and getting nuked for, like, 90 seconds. What would happen to your cheesy little eyes? Science has the answer! The liquid water molecules in your relatively watery eyes (like the relatively watery cheese in a Hot Pocket) would vibrate and heat would quickly spread.
This is where the metaphor admittedly falls apart a bit: unlike a Hot Pocket’s cheesy center, our eyes are exposed to the elements. Your skin would protect your watery guts if you were nuked, for the most part, but your exposed eyes would definitely suffer and might explode, eventually, from the pressure. There’s no guarantee: the few instances of infants being placed in microwaves did not lead to exploded eyes. Maybe it just takes a while?
You Could Get Hyperthermia and Die
Fortunately, there haven’t been that many confirmed instances humans getting cooked in microwave ovens. Tragically, the true stories that are out there mainly involve infants, which makes a sort of sick sense, considering the size of most microwaves. The death of one-month-old Paris Talley in 2005 is one such case. Paris died from hyperthermia (i.e., high body temperature) after allegedly being placed in a microwave by her mother for an unknown amount of time. The mom denies it, but the coroner’s office in Montgomery County, OH, says there’s “reason to believe and scientific evidence to support that a microwave oven might have been involved.”
Your Internal Organs Would Actually Be Pretty Okay
Strangely enough, as io9 reports, something called the “skin effect” would actually keep your internal organs relatively well-protected if you were being microwaved. Ever wonder why microwaved food is sometimes still cold in the center? That’s the skin effect. Now replace “food” with “guts” and you’ll begin to understand why getting microwaved isn’t being cooked “from the inside out.” Techly elaborates on this idea, noting that microwaves “will be around three times more concentrated at skin level than internally,” so it would take a long time for your innards to get cooked.
It Won’t Make Men Sterile
Microwave radiation expert Dr. Eleanor Adair told The New York Times in 2001 that concentrated microwave exposure of the testes “reduces the sperm count temporarily” but does not “preclude conception.” Now, if you’re being cooked alive in a giant microwave oven you have other things to worry about, but microwave exposure happens elsewhere, at various frequencies. None of these frequencies make men sterile, which was a bummer, as Adair relates, for servicemen that worked with microwave radiation during World War II. Legend has it that soldiers “believed that they could stand in front of the radars before they went on shore leave and they would be protected.”
You Could Suffer from Nerve Damage
There are several cases of adults injured by microwave radiation thanks to malfunctioning microwave ovens. In 1977, for example, a woman reached her hands into a microwave to remove a casserole and was accidentally exposed to microwave oven radiation for five seconds (the bell rang, “indicating the end of the cooking cycle,” but the microwave was still actually going). She felt a “hot pulsating sensation” and experienced burning in her fingers and fingernails. She suffered from sympathetic nerve damage in her hands and arms, among other ailments, for at least four years after the incident.
Your Skin Might Burn and Blister
It sounds like an urban legend, but there is a confirmed account (in a 2001 collection of case studies called Children and Injuries by Joe L. Frost, Ed.D.) of a babysitter placing an infant in a microwave oven for “about 60 seconds.” The baby had a “five-inch-by-seven-inch second- and third-degree burn of the mid back” and required multiple skin grafts. (Thanks to the “skin effect,” burning of some kind is practically guaranteed if you’re ever placed in microwave oven; see also the “acute thermal burns” suffered by a one-month-old in a 1999 case.) There are also accounts of burns and blisters from the use of so-called “Active Denial System” weapons, which use a different frequency of microwave radiation than ovens and are considered to be a (mostly) safe and non-lethal method of controlling crowds.
You Could Pee and Poop Blood for Years
Joseph J. Carr reports in a Microwave & Wireless Communications Technology textbook from 1997 that an engineer at a television station was accidentally zapped by a high-powered microwave antenna when his cherry picker’s engine failed. He was exposed to the intense radiation for three minutes … but was seemingly okay. The next day, however, he starting peeing and pooping blood! A doctor discovered that he had something called “massive bowel adhesions,” as well. These symptoms, Carr notes, “continued for at least several years.”
You Could Become Hypersensitive to Heat
An irksome side effect to sticking your hands in a malfunctioning microwave oven for five seconds is a “hypersensitivity” to heat for at least four years. Regarding this particular incident in 1977, however, experts in 1983 thought that the sensitivity would still “persist for a long time,” so who knows how long it actually lasted.
The malfunction caused the woman – who was just trying to innocently retrieve a casserole – to feel “the full power of the magnetron,” which led to a sensation of “needles” and heat all over her hands and arms. Multiple treatments, including cortisone, ultrasound, and acupuncture, did nothing to relieve her pain. She also experienced a “severe reduction of number of sweat glands in the finger pulps,” which sounds awful.
It Would Be Pleasant At Low Levels
Experts in microwave radiation say that being in low-level microwave fields is actually a rather pleasant experience without any side effects. The sensation is actually a lot like feeling the sun come out, according to Dr. Eleanor Adair, who has studied the effects of microwave radiation since 1975.
Adair and her colleagues, in fact, are so confident in the positive effects of microwave radiation that they think it should be used for “heating” buildings! Seriously: it’s known as the Pound Proposal and it would use magnetrons to heat people in buildings rather than the buildings themselves. It sounds freaky to people that think nuking their coffee is giving them cancer, but Adair says it’s totally safe because “the quantum energy is so low that [microwave radiation] can’t do any damage to the cells whatsoever.”