The Fire Hazard Hiding in Your Pantry (It’s Delicious but Dangerous!)

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I grew up with a mom who was a homeowner’s insurance adjuster, so there were a lot of safety rules and things we weren’t allowed to have. When I was a kid, they seemed like overkill, but in hindsight my mom was totally justified. Trampolines were an absolute no-go (far too dangerous and often improperly installed), smoke alarms were always tested and never turned off, candles were never to be burned unattended, and I wasn’t allowed to sleep over in a friend’s basement without direct access to the yard (necessary for evacuation in case of emergency). But one thing I always laughed off? Her insistence that microwave popcorn was a major fire hazard. 

As kids, we were always told to keep a close eye on popcorn while cooking, and were scolded if we put the bag in the trash before it had cooled off completely. Apparently, the popcorn safety guidelines came from her experience with a claim in which someone put a burnt bag of popcorn in the trash before letting it cool, and then placed the whole trash can outside. The wind kicked up and caused the entire trash can to catch on fire — so you can bet my mom ensured we followed the directions on the bag to a T. 

I’ve carried these guidelines into my adult life (thanks, Mom!), and recently when my fiancé was making a bag of popcorn, I snatched the bag out of the trash and realized I didn’t know the full story behind why microwave popcorn is such a fire hazard, so I did a little digging and reached out to a few experts. 

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states, “You should never leave a microwave oven unattended when microwaving popcorn, as the heat buildup can cause fires.” And according to Susan McKelvey, communications manager at NFPA, “You should always follow the microwave manufacturer’s instructions for usage and the instructions provided by the microwave popcorn manufacturer.” Additionally, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends “beginning with the minimum time specified because some microwaves can scorch popcorn in as little as two minutes.” 

Because most popcorn fires happen within the microwave, the NIH points out that should a fire start in the microwave, you should turn it off immediately. “This will stop the fan so it won’t feed oxygen to the flames,” they say. “Then, simply wait until the fire suffocates. Never open the oven door until you are absolutely certain the fire is out. If in doubt, call the fire department.” 

Luckily, McKelvey adds, “If the microwave is working properly and the popcorn is popped according to the cooking instructions, it shouldn’t burn hot enough that it would present a fire risk when thrown out.” So hopefully it never gets to the point where you’ll have to call the fire department.

When it comes to fires starting outside of the microwave from popcorn, it’s thankfully not as much of a risk as I thought when I was growing up. But still, “It’s wise to discard food after it’s cooled,” McKelvey cautions. Further, it’s important to always “open microwaved food away from the face. Hot steam escaping from a container of microwaved food, or the food itself, can cause burns.” 

So the moral of the story? Follow any and all instructions, be extremely cautious when cooking, and always listen to your parents.

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