• 12.12.13

How The World Would Look If We Could See All The Radiation From Our Cell Phones

You can’t see it, but our entire cellular network is constantly bathing us in radiation. Better hope it’s really harmless.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely bathed in several channels of cell phone radiation at once. But while we can spot cell phone towers and antennae, the waves themselves remain invisible. Following up on a project to visualize what Wi-Fi might look like in cities, artist-researcher Nickolay Lamm has imagined what cell phone radiation would look like if emitted as waves of light.


For his project, Lamm worked with eight academics and engineers to verify that the images we’re looking at are accurate representations of cell phone radiation. Like radio, cell phones rely on radio frequency waves, which emit low-energy radiation. Unlike ionizing radiation–released by higher-energy gamma rays, X-rays, and ultraviolet rays–exposure to cell phones’ non-ionizing radiation has not been proven to cause serious damage to living tissue.

Still, much more research is needed: Awaiting results of long-term studies on the link between tumors and chronic exposure to cell phones pressed against our heads, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified cell phone radiation as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans. Meanwhile, U.S. governmental institutions have found no concrete link between cell phone radiation and adverse effects in human health. “It’s an open question,” says Danilo Erricolo, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago who helped provide Lamm with background information on cell phone radiation.

At least we now have an idea what that exposure could look like en masse. In New York, for example, we see what one telecommunication carrier’s coverage might look like across hundreds of hexagonal “cells.” The shape of these coverage areas is hypothetical, Lamm explains, but the concept is sound: The denser a population, the denser the constellation of base stations, which contain antennae emitting radiofrequencies.

From these base stations we see downward-facing spotlights, or “combination channels” of antennae radiation patterns. Each includes an array of frequencies targeting different users. In order for users to communicate with the tower, messages are sent across frequencies that assemble together within one channel.

Larger bursts of light, like the kind you see from the Capitol, behind the Hollywood sign, and from the Herbert C. Hoover building in Washington, D.C., signify long-range coverage. The strongest signals are emitted from the center of the base station patterns.

In reality, if cell phone radiation was visible, none of this could be distinguished. With the overlapping of different cell phone carriers across neighborhoods, cities would probably look like hazy cotton balls of light pollution. Add Wi-Fi, TV, and radio, too, and try to imagine the thick, oscillating blanket of frequencies that surrounds us every day.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.