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Can Microwaved Water Explode?

From the Mailbag


Dear Urban Legends:

I received this email that had been forwarded by many companies' safety departments. Apparently, there is actual science fact behind this, but the email is worded with all the normal Internet legend warning signs (e.g. the tragedy happening to the author's son, the doctor and hospital not being named, and the duration of heating not being specified).

Is there a legitimate concern for the average microwave user? Or is this occurrence so rare that the email is really just another scare-o-gram?

This is the text:

FW: Safety Alert - Microwaving Water

Importance: High

The following information came from a member of staff and is worthy of note -

Subject: Microwaving Water to Heat it Up

I feel that the following is information that any one who uses a microwave oven to heat water should be made aware of. About five days ago my 26-year old son decided to have a cup of instant coffee. He took a cup of water and put it in the microwave to heat it up (something that he had done numerous times before). I am not sure how long he set the timer for but he told me he wanted to bring the water to a boil. When the timer shut the oven off, he removed the cup from the oven. As he looked into the cup he noted that the water was not boiling but instantly the water in the cup "blew up" into his face. The cup remained intact until he threw it out of his hand but all the water had flew out into his face due to the buildup of energy. His whole face is blistered and he has 1st and 2nd degree burns to his face which may leave scarring. He also may have lost partial sight in his left eye.

While at the hospital, the doctor who was attending to him stated that this a fairly common occurrence and water (alone) should never be heated in a microwave oven. If water is heated in this manner, something should be placed in the cup to diffuse the energy such as a wooden stir stick, tea bag, etc. It is however a much safer choice to boil the water in a tea kettle. Please pass this information on to friends and family.

Dear Reader:

You're right, this tale does display all the hallmarks of a typical email "scare-o-gram." But, as you observed, that doesn't necessarily mean it can't be true.

First, let's consider the specific story about a 26-year-old man who suffered first- and second-degree burns after microwaved water exploded in his face. Is it factual word-for-word? We have no way of knowing. The author is anonymous, the alleged victim is anonymous, we are not told where or when the incident supposedly happened. We simply cannot verify its authenticity.

Moving on, let's consider the general scenario. Is it plausible to think that something like what was described in the email can happen?

The answer, apparently, is yes — under just the right circumstances.

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