Has the popularity of microwaves resulted in a decrease in home fires?
March 29, 2014 3:18 PM   Subscribe

Microwaves generally shut themselves off and are sealed, unlike stovetop elements or ovens. Has this resulted in an overall increase in home safety?
posted by Morrigan to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
No expert, but I'd guess it would be hard to separate the impact of microwaves from other trends that have been co-occurring, like less home cooking generally, requirements for ground fault interrupters, and flame-retardant fabrics (actually I think that last one is kind of controversial).
posted by lakeroon at 3:36 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

corollary answer -- I don't know about the microwaves, but the biggest decrease in home fires is because of falling cigarette smoking rates, and the corresponding drop in people falling asleep with lit cigarettes around.
posted by fingersandtoes at 3:59 PM on March 29, 2014 [4 favorites]

these people would know:


I see many statistics for causes of house fires there, some broken down by year.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:25 PM on March 29, 2014 [3 favorites]

That's a very difficult question to ask without performing the experiment! But you could do as the bottlebrushtree suggests and check if the rate of stove-related fires has decreased since the introduction of microwaves.
posted by zscore at 4:49 PM on March 29, 2014

While it's a bit difficult to show this statistically for reasons pointed out above (mainly that any microwave-related effects will probably be swamped by other effects) I can't imagine how it wouldn't increase home safety (if we're defining that as "reduce rate of fires and cooking-related accidents"). There are just way more opportunities to burn yourself or set fire to your house when using a stove than there are when using a microwave, and microwave oven usage has certainly replaced stove usage to a certain extent since microwaves' introduction.

Both of those previous statements being (I think) pretty safely uncontroversial, I think that the burden of proof would be on the side of showing that the introduction of microwave ovens has not increased home safety. Showing a statistically significant effect would be hard to prove though, and I think it would also be less clear whether or not the introduction of microwave ovens (which have contributed to the rise of pre-packaged and pre-processed food, generally considered less healthy than food prepared from scratch) has led to an overall increase in public health and quality of life.
posted by Scientist at 5:36 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I managed (years ago) to have a fire in a microwave oven. I had a sudden need for a loaf of bread from the freezer. Stuffed the loaf into the micro and almost instantly saw flames. The metallic element of the twist-tie ignited the plastic part. I will humbly accept any genius awards.
posted by Cranberry at 11:00 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine how it wouldn't increase home safety

It is a stretch to think that the overall effect would not be to increase home safety, but it's possible to imagine that the effect is very small, and maybe even negative rather than positive.

The conjecture would go like this:

What is the typical use case of a microwave, and what are the typical causes of cooking fires?

For the former my guess is that microwaves are typically used to heat up previously prepared foods, either ones that were bought ready-to-microwave, or things one had cooked previously. If the microwave did not exist, these activities would still not be high-risk ones, as far as cooking goes.

High-risk cooking activities are things like deep frying. Microwaves might arguably reduce these kinds of things because they facilitate buying prepared foods rather than home cooking, but it would be a pretty indirect link. It's quite possible that microwaves per se cause hardly any displacement of high-risk cooking activities at all. Quite likely there are people who deep fry, and people who never do, and microwaves have little effect on that.

If that was the case, the contribution to fire safety could be positive but very small.

If it was very small it could be swamped by other effects. For example faulty electrical equipment is a fairly important source of fires in the home, and there are thing like Cranberry's example which are easier to cause through misuse of a microwave than if you'd had to resort to using pans or ovens to warm up already-cooked food.

So it's probably going to be hard to prove anything.

Quite interesting PDF report: HOME FIRES INVOLVING COOKING EQUIPMENT from this page, which has an executive summary.

Interesting titbit: the peak days for home fires from cooking are Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, and Christmas Eve. I would speculate there was not a whole lot of microwaving involved in those fires, but people were likely doing things that they would never use a microwave for anyway.
posted by philipy at 10:09 AM on March 30, 2014

Anecdata: Closest I ever came to being around when a house caught fire was when my brother started heating butter in a popcorn popper and he forgot about it. It was exciting when I walked into the kitchen. Microwaves are certainly safer for making popcorn.
posted by randomkeystrike at 4:45 PM on March 30, 2014

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